Everybody Say “Yeah Yeah”

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof“, Tevye the milkman sings about tradition. Tradition is important in musicals. Most musicals have a traditional structure: they tell a fictional story with characters that show growth. They feature particular types of songs structured into typical places to musicalize important points or emotional moments of that story. Other shows are more “jukebox” shows: they present a catalog of an artists music, perhaps arranged so as to tell the life story of the artist. I was just recording one of those yesterday: a collection of songs illustrating the life of Cole Porter. “Fela“, which we saw last night at the Ahmanson Theatre, is not your typical musical.

I went into Fela knowing nothing about the story of Fela Kuti, other than he was the founder of afro-beat music. I was expecting some form of afro-beat jukebox musical. What I got was something I didn’t expect, and didn’t fully understand.

Fela transports you to “The Shrine”, Fela’s concert home in Lagos, Nigeria, at an unspecified point of time. This is to be Fela’s last concert; he has made the decision to leave Nigeria for his personal safety and the safety of his family. But the ghost of his mother and his ancestors are urging him to stay and fight for Nigeria. The musical is the telling of that decision process. Through what I would best characterize as afro-beat rap, Fela tells the story (in pidgin English) of his life, how it lead him to create afro-beat music, and how that music intertwined into Nigerian life.

Fela’s story is not a pretty one. Africa was escaping the chains of colonialism, and often the leaders that emerged were more interested in their power than their people.  Fela went to London to ostensibly study law but to really study music: this lead to the jazz influence in afro-beat. But what really shaped the music was a visit to the United States where his consciousness was raised on the power of music. He returned to Nigeria and started to use his music to fight the corrupt leadership. This lead to the leadership fighting back with physical attacks on Fela and his family, culminating with the destruction of his compounds and their throwing his elderly mother off a second-story balcony. This, my friends, is not the story of a conventional musical.

The story is just one reason why Fela is not a conventional musical. The music is another, and the style of Fela Kuti is yet another. The story of Fela is narrated by Fela himself, in broken heavily-accented English, surrounded by his band and a large number of African dancers. Fela’s songs are used to introduce the musical style, tell the story, and present key songs and describe their place in the story. There are few identifyable characters other than Fela: there is Sandra, Fela’s girlfriend from the US, and Funmilayo, his mother. The songs are in Fela’s style: long numbers intertwined with a story, and significant give and take with the audience. For example, in the number “BID”, Fela has the audience at the Ahmanson stand up and learn how to dance with him. The songs and stories cover key moments: Fela’s education in London, Fela’s trip to the US, Fela’s pot smoking and arrest, the “zombie” song and its use against the government, Fela’s attempt at political power, the government’s retaliation, Fela’s decision to stay and fight for Nigeria and his “marriage” to a large collection of women at the same time.

The most powerful moments in Fela, however, are not the Afro-beat sequences. For me, the most powerful was the scene about the attack on Fela’s compound, where the attack was illustrated by the ringing of a small bell accompanied with the story of what happened to the individuals in the compound. That was truly moving. Also moving was the number “Rain”, where Fela interacts with Funmilayo regarding whether to stay in Nigeria. Both of these were quiet moments, in contrast to the energetic afro-beat heart of Fela that gets you moving and dancing.

When I walked out of Fela, I wasn’t going, “Wow! This was great!”. I was confused—I didn’t understand Fela’s story completely, and I didn’t see where he made a difference for Nigeria. I was won-over by the infectious rhythms and the remarkable dance… and looking back this morning, I can see how the story was told in a remarkable manner.

One of the strengths of Fela is in its performance and dancing. In the lead position is Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti. He narrates the proceedings. He dances. He play saxaphone and trumpet. He conveys the story and inhabits the character. It is a remarkable performance. According to the program, he alternates with Adesola Osakalumi; based on looks, I think we saw Ngaujah.

As Fela is the heart and soul of this show, you don’t get to know the other named characters that well. Perhaps the most identifiable is Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, played by Melanie Marshall. Marshall portrays Funmilayo with inner strength, and has a remarkable singing voice and presence. As Sandra, Paulette Ivory also gives a strong performance—although again is it more through presence, singing, and dance than through traditional dialogue and non-dance interaction. Rounding out the named characters are Ismael Kouyaté as Ismael, Gelan Lambert as J.K. Braimah (Tap Dancer) and Egungun, and Jonathan Andre (substituting for Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green) as Djeme-‘Mustafa’. All were strong dancers.

The visual strength and beauty of Fela comes from its dancing ensemble, which consists of Sherinne Kayra Anderson, Cindy Belliot, Nande Bhebhe, Catia Mota da Cruz, Jacqui Dubois, Oneika Phillips, Thierry Picaut, Jermaine Rowe, Daniel Soto, Jill Marie Vallery, Iris Wilson, Aimee Graham Wodobode, and (as we had both swings performing), Wanjiru Kamuyu and Adé Chiké Torbert (substituting for Nicole Chantal De Weever and Poundo Gomis). All of these talented men and women were great dancers—I have no idea where they find the energy to do what they do on stage every night. They were just a pleasure to watch.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Also onstage—and doing a remarkable job—was the band. The band consisted of Aaron Johnson (Conductor/Trombone/Keyboard), Greg Gonzalez (Asst. Conductor/Drums), Jeff Pierce (Trumpet), Jeremy Wilms (Bass/Keyboards/Percussion), Ricardo Quinones (Guitar/Percussion), Bryan Vargas (Guitar/Percussion), Yoshihiro Takemasa (Congas/Percussion), Alex Harding (Baritone Saxophone/Percussion), Morgan Price (Tenor Saxophone/Percussion), Dylan Fusillo (Percussion). Music coordination was by Aaron Johnson, who also developed any additional music with Jordan McLean.

The production was directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who also developed the book of the production. Jim Lewis also worked on the book, as well as providing additional lyrics. Primary music and lyrics were by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Maija Garcia was the creative director and associate choreographer. Niegel Smith was the associate director.

Turning to the technical: Scenic and costume design were by Marina Draghici and were remarkable—particularly the costumes. Lighting was by Robert Wierzel, with projections by Peter Nigrini. Both were key to the presentation: I particularly liked the use of gobos to create mood and light the audience, and the projections—especially during the attack on the compound—were particularly effective and moving. I will note that some were difficult to see from the side boxes where we were sitting. Sound was by Robert Kaplowitz. Wigs, hair, and makeup (which were very effective) were by Cookie Jordan. Todd Frank was the technical supervisor. John M. Atherlay was the production stage manager; Alex Burke and William Gilinsky were the stage managers.

Fela” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until January 22, 2012. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office; hottix may also be available for select performances.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance:Fela” was our last performance in 2011; hopefully, you enjoyed our 2011 theatre season and the reviews.  January will bring the “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse on January 28. February is busier. It begins at Van Nuys High School, with the Senior and Alumni Dance performances on February 2-3. “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach follows on February 5.  The next weekend sees us in Thousand Oaks for “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 11. The third weekend takes us to Saugus for “Jewtopia” at REP East.  February concludes with “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre. March is equally busy, beginning with “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” at Van Nuys High School (March 2-3 and 8-10; we’re likely going on 3/2), and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center on March 3. March should also bring “American Idiot” at the Ahmanson, and “Journey’s End” at REP East. March will conclude with Tom Paxton in concert at McCabe on 3/31. Continuing the look ahead, April will bring  “Billy Elliot” at the Pantages, the Southern California Renaissance Faire, “Once Upon a Mattress” at Cabrillo, and “Dames at Sea” at the Colony. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.

Music: You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967 Original Off-Broadway Cast): Kite