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NY Theater Reviews

Ph: Monique Carboni

AFROBEAT

By MATT WINDMAN

While this musical succeeds in creating an exciting, explosive environment lush with African music and dance, the story leaves much to be desired.

It's hard to imagine any place livelier than Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where the new musical Fela! just opened following a successful Off-Broadway run. In fact, the theater has been transformed into the hotspot nightclub of Lagos, Nigeria. As the audience enters, the band is already playing and African art is everywhere. Soon enough, a modelesque tribe engages in free-form dance followed by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, their leader. The audience is even invited to dance along.
 
Fela gained fame in the late 20th century as a Nigerian political rebel and bandleader. In addition to unsuccessfully running for president, Fela was notorious for having no less than 27 wives. Fela! is imagined as a 1977 concert intended to be his farewell to Nigeria prior to moving to a safer area due to ongoing attacks from government soldiers.
 
The musical is primarily a celebration of Afrobeat, Fela's style of music that mixed jazz, funk and African rhythms. Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones has staged seemingly untamed, vibrant choreography that perfectly matches the percussive music. Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela along with Kevin Mambo on alternating nights, almost never leaves the stage. Ngaujah displays a muscular, animalistic presence along with the charisma to command a loyal army of followers.
 
But in spite of so much to admire visually, Fela! has absolutely no storyline besides some vague biographical details and quickly turns into a repetitive bore. It plays like a one-man show with backup dancers and singers giving off explosive energy. Some more intriguing moments later in the show include a hallucinatory experience with his mother and the graphic details of a 1977 attack on his home.
 
The show's producers took a huge risk bringing a show with a relatively narrow niche appeal to Broadway. But in spite of its overflowing theatricality, Fela! falls short of providing a solid night of drama.