Historically, the Broadway musical is a populist medium. It was meant for the masses as a means of popular entertainment. With the progression of the last century of the art form, it’s, needless to say, evolved into a much more nuanced and wide genre. And while those populist musicals still exist (in abundance), none more summarizes the changing tide than ‘Fela!’ and its audacious return.
Full disclosure, I didn’t see ‘Fela!’ the first time around. It played from November of 2009 to January 2011, picked up a few Tony awards along the way, and then set out on tour. The production that has made it back to Broadway is the world tour staging, which carries with it special significance within the show, as Fela, the character, describes his own world tour. A significance that was not lost on the opening night audience, prompting one balcony viewer to shout out, “Welcome back Fela!”
The musical tells the biography of Afrobeat forefather and Nigerian activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Maybe “tells” is too strong of a word. It’s a hybrid of concert, dance piece, and conceptual musical that makes you work for the story. It’s all there but it comes in more ways than simple dialogue and lyrical songs. This hybrid is at times more effective and makes the contrast of highs and lows even more impactful. And with the full commitment and dazzling, work horse performance of Sahr Ngaujah as the title character, you’ll absolutely walk out of the theater with a firm grasp and emotional resonance on Fela, the man.
Bill T Jones Tony-winning choreography is one that has to be seen to be believed. The show is wall-to-wall dancing and instantly makes one wonder how the cast does it 8 shows a week. Their physicality is wholly unique and fills up the Al Hirschfeld with kinetic, driven energy. ‘Fela!’ is alive. Pair that with the brazen production design, lighting, and costumes and it steps into another realm. Projection and lighting work wonders to escalate this production to a higher-level Broadway experience, while also keeping those populist masses informed. But don’t get too comfortable, because they aren’t afraid to get weird — and I mean really weird.
Returning for a (very) limited summer run was just as daring a move as the show itself. If the show closed a year and a half ago, why would it now be commercially viable? Especially a show this challenging for mass audiences. But the drag of summer on Broadway opens up the doors for this kind of work and we should be glad that it does. While a cliche, ‘Fela!’ isn’t like anything on Broadway and it deserves this second shot, if only for reinforcement of its presence. If you missed it the first time, and don’t mind some thought with your exuberant singing and dancing, gyrate to the Hirschfeld before August 4th.