Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Many Nations Under A Groove
December 23, 2011
Fela returned to Los Angeles earlier this month. Or more precisely, Fela! the musical that bears Fela Kuti’s name along with the requisite exclamation mark opened the Los Angeles leg of the show’s current national tour at the Ahmanson Theater. The show is a return of sort in that Fela Kuti, the person, spent some developmentally critical time in Los Angeles in 1969 where his exposure to activists in the Black Panther movement helped fuel his own political leanings and viewpoints. These events, including Kuti’s meeting with Sandra Iszadore, are depicted in the semi-autobiographical story line, which just as frequently veers off into exuberant dance, powerful live music, and a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. Which is good since the dance and musical numbers are frankly amazing and far more interesting in the end. There’s a musical education to be had in Fela! and the show is vitally compelling theater.
I first saw this show in January of 2010 in New York and thought very highly of it then and still. Choreographer Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis assembled the book with Kuti’s own music for a product that is far more idea-oriented than its average jukebox music brethren. The show has suffered its own share of slings and arrows as well, including Charles Isherwood’s charges of minstrelsy and the more general criticism that the overall image of Kuti constructed by the show glosses over some of the less-than-noble aspects of its subject's life and personality. But this is art, and most audiences have been sophisticated enough to appreciate that all art, and especially theater, is about making inherently unfair decisions to create something that is inextricably bound up in particular social and political perspectives. Jones and Lewis have created as valid an image of Fela Kuti as anyone might. It isn't the only possible one. If there is any crime in Fela!, it’s that American theater hasn’t provided for a dozen shows just like it on the same topic all from different perspectives. Maybe Fela! wouldn’t have to say so much to and for so many if other voices were given more opportunity and space to speak.
All that being said, this touring production of Fela! does suffer some unavoidable set-backs at the Ahmanson. The show critically relies on interaction between the audience and the ensemble members, often moving around the auditorium which in prior incarnations is highly decorated, blurring the line between stage and seats. The large, aisle-free Ahmanson refutes this, constraining the motion and activity to the stage and a series of call-and-response audience participation moments. This distance can take a big bite out of the finales of both acts where the intensity and actions of the ensemble seem far less encompassing and the political bite of Kuti's music is blunted.
One of the things I was most excited about in revisiting the show, though, was the strength of its cast, many of whom had appeared in the original production. Sahr Ngaujah, who appeared again in the title role in the show I saw, gives one of the most remarkable stage performances I’ve seen in the last few years and deserves far more recognition for this performance than he has sometimes received. He manages a character with very fine lines between humor and rage with real nuance. The show also preserves the thrill of having a red hot live band on stage. Fela! gets that a musical is about music, and having the flesh and blood players to make that sound on stage conquers the whole evening. It's a great show even in this somewhat lesser carbon-copy performance at the Ahmanson; and if you haven't seen it, you should before it ends on January 22.