Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was the Lady Gaga of Nigeria in the 1970s. The creator of Afrobeat, a fusion of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms, Fela became an international phenomenon and then went on to become a notorious political activist, the scourge of the Nigerian government, and the founder of the Kalakuta Republic, a commune which he declared to be independent of the Nigerian state.
His story is told in the musical “Fela!” which opened at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre after 14 months on Broadway, three months in London and performances in Lagos, Nigeria. Nominated for 11 Tony awards and winner of three in 2010, “Fela!” in the Los Angeles production features the originator of the role, Sahr Ngaujah, as well as many other performers from the Broadway cast.
Unfortunately, the unremitting reverberations from overhyped drums and overmiked singers could, after two and a half hours, leave the faint of heart with palpitations. It was like watching “The Lion King” on steroids.
In fact, the microphones amplified Ngaujah’s angry tirades against the Nigerian government to such a degree that the words he shouted often needed to be projected in supertitles on a screen in the background.
Projections of newspaper headlines on multiple screens before the show begins tell Fela’s story almost more effectively than the show itself. As his fame as a political activist moved others to also protest the despotism of the Nigerian government and its military, the headlines reported “Fela’s Action Provoked the Disturbance,” “The Nigerian Army is one of the strongest in Africa,” “Fela Raided in Ghana,” “Fela Spent 7 Days in Hospital,” and the like. Finally, after having been jailed, beaten, and tortured countless times, Fela lived through the demolition of the Kalakuta Republic when the compound was attacked and burned to the ground by some 1,000 Nigerian soldiers.
Influenced by America’s Black Power movement, Fela was a strong supporter of African traditions and culture, including polygyny, the practice of one man with many wives. At one point he married some 27 women, mainly prostitutes whom he called his “queens.” (In this musical version of his life he keeps the number to eight.) But this activity probably accounts for his death from AIDS in 1997 at the age of 58.
The main story arc, if there is one, deals with Fela’s relationship with his recently deceased mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti, an early feminist and an anti-colonial activist. As Funmilayo, Melanie Marshall, a marvelous actress with a glorious voice, brings lyrical clarity with her songs of admonition and advice, rendered from the afterlife with a dignity and virtuosity that is a welcome change of tone and pace.
Also outstanding are Ismael Kouyate from Guinea, West Africa, who sings the powerful a capella praise songs that incorporate the more traditional tones of African chants, and Gelan Lambert whose extraordinary tap dancing rivals the percussive beat of the band.
The ensemble dancers are energetic, shaking their thing and bounding around the stage, but even though Bill T. Jones won a Tony for his choreography, there is a sameness and a repetition to the numbers, and a lot of graceless galumphing around. Especially in a long and tedious number that incorporates Yoruba mysticism, ancestral spirits and general spookiness.
And finally, there is “the message” itself, rendered through projections of warfare, explosions and cast members carrying signs identifying the villains: BP, Halliburton, and other members of the international military-industrial community. Ngaujah’s harsh polemics, delivered mostly as a rant, miss the mark, however, because so much action has already taken place onstage, and so many confusing side issues have been brought into the mix that it’s almost impossible to become emotionally involved in the political activism he espouses.
And speaking of getting involved, Ngaujah introduces a number of irrelevant diversions such as demanding that the audience join the production by standing up and wiggling to his instructions, shouting out responses to his questions, and occasionally being subjected to sly insults in reaction to their feeble participation. Although these antics were presumably staples of Fela’s actual performances, the opening night audience in L.A. was apparently not up for this and the whole experience, in my view, fell quite flat.
In addition to choreographing the production, Bill T. Jones directed it and, with Jim Lewis, wrote the book. The music and lyrics are by Fela, with additions by Jim Lewis, Aaron Johnson, and Jordan McLean. And the story itself is taken from Carlos Moore’s authorized biography, “Fela: This Bitch of a Life.”
“Fela!” will continue at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave, in Los Angeles Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through Jan. 22, 2012. Call (213) 972-4400 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.