Thursday, January 27, 2011

FELA! / A brief staff review by a non-believer

As someone who by rule does not enjoy musicals, I was blown away by the fierce, frenetic power of FELA! That title pretty much says it all; it’s in all caps, with an exclamation point afterward, and it’s the first name of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the revolutionary Nigerian originator of Afrobeat, so the production has some work to do to live up to its name. It’s a great testament to the power of Fela’s music that the show has moved from off-Broadway to Broadway to London, and from there transmitted to movie theaters across the country.

The music behind the show is powered by Anitibalas, Brooklyn’s answer to The Africa ‘70. And the music holds it all together, acting as the connective tissue and taking us on a journey through Fela’s discovery of the power of music, then the radical wisdom of Black Power in 1969 Los Angeles, and finally the fusion of both, as he returns to Nigeria a conquering, 27 wife-taking, pot-smoking, freedom-inspiring hero.

But through all of that traveling, we never leave the Shrine, Fela’s home base for his epic shows in Lagos, Nigeria. Sahr Ngaujah as Fela flies with the audience through his past, future, and demons, as a cast of incredible, multi-talented performers swirls around him. The costumes, choreography, and set design during all of this transition almost give the music a run for its money.

Although the story takes us to some incredibly unpleasant places (things were not all roses after Nigeria threw off the bonds of British colonialism, as much of Fela’s music and life attest to), it’s impossible to not be uplifted at the end of it all. Like the man himself, FELA! is nearly a force of nature, and although it did not convince me to seek out more musicals, I cannot now say I hate them all.

Review by Zach Breneman, Loft Cinema Business Manager and amateur musical hater.

FELA! plays Sunday, January 30th at Noon and Tuesday, February 1st at 7:00PM at The Loft Cinema.

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