YOU MUST SEE The Tony Award-winning Broadway show FELA now playing at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre!! It’s a spectacularly inspiring hybrid: theater, music, dance, biography, history lesson, political rally, religious experience, and the first theatrical production I’ve REALLY wanted to write about in awhile. Directed and choregraphed by the great Bill T. Jones, FELA is the “story about how things are” as told by the late Nigerian musician and revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. His weapon of choice? A musical arsenal of African beats, funk, jazz, layered with simple but potent lyrics; Fela’s “hit” songs literally strike out at colonial imperialists and corrupt dictators in his native land.
Fela is played by the electric Sahr Ngaujah as a charismatic firebrand. We find ourselves in his private club in the late ’70’s called The Shrine– and Fela is the high priest. He breaks it down for us, beat by beat: drums, Latin and African rhythms, built on big band horns, and Fela himself on sax. The stage is possessed by a red hot band, a phalanx of pelvically propelled dancers, a blistering tapper, and choreography that whips them all- and us- into a frenzy.
Video screens capture historical images of oppression, torture, starvation, chaos, as Fela roots us in the here and now recounting his courageous story of “sorrow, tears and blood.” Sometimes he picks up a spliff the size of a small submarine and smokes center stage; sometimes he commands us to rise up and dance, sing and shout. (I felt especially Caucasian at this part of the evening.) Fela disarms us with his sexiness and humor as he begins to tell the tale of the fair-skinned, tea-drinking colonial guests who first move into his country; then “things start to go missing–ashtrays… petroleum…people.” These “guests” leave behind only “gonorrhea and Jesus.”
We are compelled as much by the tale as the tellers: this cast is sublime. Fela’s martyred mother and feminist leader is played by Melanie Marshall who sings an ecstatic aria of resilience and transformation called “Rain”; hers is a soulful, soaring, earthy, top to bottom ridiculously gorgeous voice. Paulette Ivory is stunning as Sandra a provocative young African-American rebel, who challenges Fela and blesses us with a voice of remarkable range, heart, and authority. The entire cast moves like one organism, powered by extraordinary energy, exuberance, and commitment. Fela is one of the most exhilarating and enlightening evenings I’ve ever spent in a theater.
DO NOT MISS “FELA” at the Cutler Majestic through May 6!! For tickets: 617-824-8000 or www.artsemerson.org.