Three months ago I reported to you that Patti Labelle had joined the cast of FELA!, the Broadway musical depicting the life of Nigerian activist/musician Fela Kuti. I had written the news in August before seeing the production myself, only acquainted with the YouTube clips of the musical, which are fast-tempo commercials that give only a glimpse of how truly fantastic this play is. However, I got a chance to check out FELA! for my birthday this past Saturday, and I am a full-fledged groupie now, telling anyone who will listen about how truly fabulous this show is. It's a magical ride, an interactive visual and aural feast that features talent in all spheres of the arts--dance, theater, visual arts and music. If you are able to, I encourage you to check it out ASAP before it ends its Broadway run on January 2nd.
After the bounce
Fela Kuti fever has surged in the recent years and his music and controversial history is more accessible now than it has ever been before. You can Google him and find tons of information about this historic figure. On YouTube there are truncated documentaries about his life, and you can find CDs and tribute albums on Amazon.com with his Afrobeat music that is heavily influenced by jazz and James Brown. You can read summaries about him on wikis that are always being updated, for his history is highly worthy of all of this attention, despite the fact that he was a proud polygamist with 27 wives who were a mix of his background singers, composers and dancers.
Living and gaining prominence in the 1970s, Fela Kuti was a musician who defied all convention to stand for the way of life that he felt Nigerians deserved--one free of daily threat by the Nigerian government. FELA! artfully depicts the life of this charismatic man who is portrayed onstage by Kevin Mambo. Mambo's Fela is witty, horny and outspoken, a virtual man's man who is undeniably charming from the start to the end of this two-hour festival for the senses. Mambo is the play's dramatic centerpiece, as most of the acting is done by or through him. He leads the play through the in-your-face dance sequences, choreographed by the iconic Bill T. Jones, and glides around on the beautiful set constructed to depict the nightclub The Shrine, which was Fela's religious and political pulpit.
Finally, one could not help but marvel at the small yet powerfully restrained performance of Patti LaBelle who portrays Fela Kuti's mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti--an amazing heroine who deserves a biopic done on her alone. While we know Ms. Patti as a wailing tour de force, her portrayal of Fela's deceased mother was tempered, controlled and surprisingly muted when compared to the LaBelle we are used to. Unlike her on-screen roles that are Patti LaBelle-like characters with different names, she owns this role with acting finesse that matches the award-worthy performance of Kevin Mambo. Rather than ruin the musical for you and give away any more details, I will end only to say that if you are scratching your head this Christmas season trying to decide what to get the music lover in your life who has an affection for world music and likes to get up out of their seat and dance, tickets to this play would surely be the gift that will keep on giving. Trust me.