Theater review: ‘Fela!’ at the Ahmanson Theatre
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“Everybody say yeah yeah!” shouted a sweat-drenched, utterly mesmerizing Sahr Ngaujah, decked in the sexy peacock attire of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian activist-musician he portrays in the exuberant musical “Fela!”
“Yeah yeah!” replied Wednesday’s opening-night audience at the Ahmanson Theatre at a volume that suggested no one was holding back.
The politically charged tale of the man who pioneered the Afrobeat movement, “Fela!” is a rare phenomenon — an American musical that tells its story through the music and the liberated, full-body dancing that is an extension of its percussive groove. Bill T. Jones directed and choreographed the show, so it’s no surprise that it moves as hypnotically as it sounds.
When I first encountered the work on Broadway in 2009, I was bowled over by its energy and stunned by the way the old Eugene O’Neill Theatre had been transformed into the Shrine, the swinging nightspot in Lagos, Nigeria, where Fela has gathered his fans for what he says will be his final concert in his homeland. The cavernous Ahmanson isn’t quite as amenable to this sort of radical makeover. (Peter Nigrini’s projections enliven Marina Draghici’s swallowed-up set.) But the cast, led by an always-in-motion Ngaujah (Adesola Osakalumi takes over the role at certain performances), has little difficulty in filling the space with its fluid mix of hard partying and sly protest.
What is somewhat more apparent this time around is the sketchiness of the book by Jim Lewis and Jones. The show, conceived by Jones, Lewis and Stephen Hendel, is inspired by Carlos Moore’s authorized biography of Fela, but don’t expect a thorough documentary accounting. Timelines are fuzzy, events and locations slip and slide, and there’s no mention of AIDS, from which Fela died in 1997.
In other words, if you’re looking for an orderly assemblage of the facts, this isn’t it. But “Fela!” offers something that only the theater can provide — an immersion in Fela’s music, an encounter with his charismatically frenetic concert presence and a confrontation with his political style. The trade-off, trust me, is worth it. But be prepared to get out of your seat and shake your derriere. Passive spectatorship would be an insult. Not that it’s feasible with such a rousing onstage band and the sight of all those male and female dancers swept up, erotically and aerobically, in Fela’s music and lyrics. (So many washboard stomachs on flying display, so many ambidextrous legs, so many bouncing booties!)
In “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” Fela charts the various influences (Chano Pozo and James Brown among them) that inform his sensibility. His political awareness seems to grow with his musical education, the one spurring on the other. As a student in London, Fela took inspiration from John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra. In Los Angeles, his consciousness was raised by a character named Sandra (Paulette Ivory), who challenged his assumptions about women and turned him on to the writings of Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. (The real Sandra was in attendance Wednesday and celebrated onstage with the cast during the curtain call.)
Fela understood that a crucial aspect of Afrobeat’s power was its ability to connect people, body to pulsating body. From rhythm, he derived ecstatic solidarity. From his saxophone, he drew empowerment for others. No wonder the authorities found him so dangerous. The raid of his compound that resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall), a national leader, left him wondering whether it was wise to continue the battle against oppression. Self-determination for the African people was his creed, but freedom was turning out to be an increasingly treacherous pursuit.
Prepared to abandon his quest, Fela is guided by the spirit of his mother, who enjoins him to press on. (Marshall’s vocals are so commanding in this scene they’re almost otherworldly.) He decides to lead a procession with her coffin straight to the steps of the capitol, declaring this to be a B.Y.O.C. moment — Bring Your Own Coffin, meaning be willing to put your life on the line for your beliefs.
This is a timely moment for the message of “Fela!” to be heard. At home and abroad, protest is in the air and the stamina of movements is being tested by the forces arrayed against them. One of the take-aways of the show is just how fundamental this struggle is to being human. Whatever the context — colonial, postcolonial or, as the production occasionally alludes, the capitalist decadence of today — ordinary citizens must defend themselves against the powers-that-be.
Afrobeat, as the musical vividly demonstrates, has a way of turning individuals into a collective jiggling body — an ideal soundtrack for uprisings. And the opening-night crowd at the Ahmanson had no problem letting go of inhibitions. But then freedom is contagious and the joyful liberty of this thrilling cast is something theatergoers will be happy to catch. RELATED:
-- Charles McNulty
‘Fela!’ Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends January 22
$20 to $120. (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Fela Running time: 2 hour, 45 minutes.