Do yourself a favour and get your ticket to FELA! Whether you line up 2 hours prior to showtime and get Rush tickets or whether you buy regular tickets, you will want to be in the house when Tony Award nominee, Sahr Ngaujah breaks it down as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. With the Canon Theatre stage transformed into The Shrine (one of Fela’s clubs), leave your “shy” at home, in your car, on the TTC, and most definitely at the door, because you are going to more than just a play, you are going to a Fela-bration! Don’t worry that you haven’t had time to Google who Fela is or what Afrobeat is. Music will great you as you take your seat, and dancing women, with a talent for muscle isolation and sonic sexiness will demand your attention and make you forget the 416, 905, 519 and get into the 419, a gyrating audience participation dance where your hips are a clock and you set the movement. The 419 is also a reference to the Nigerian penal code for fraud, so while FELA! entertains, it’s also includes the political and social struggles that Fela Kuti experienced in Nigeria.
Directed and choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones, who conceived the idea with Jim Lewis (book, additional lyrics) and Stephen Hendel (also a producer), FELA! is a mesmerizing, production full of movement, magic and, of course, music. Anyone attempting to even perform in the style of Fela Kuti has to be multi-talented, and triple threat (actor, dancer, singer), Sahr Ngaujah effortlessly embodies Fela’s charismatic and explosive spirit. Ngaujah knows when to swagger with music star sex appeal, when to transition to charming repartee with the audience, and when to command attention as a leader and political activist.
Melanie Marshall (Fumilayo Kuti) tears the roof off with her warm, rounded soprano in Trouble Sleep and Rain, while actress/singer, Paulette Ivory (Fela’s U.S.-born second wife, Sandra) fills the Canon Theatre with her rich tones of molasses and smoke in such songs as Upside Down and Water Get No Enemy.
Lending credibility to the Fela stage are a core of female dancers that flit around Ngaujah; sometimes as the dancers/singers that were an essential part of Fela’s concerts; sometimes as club clients; and sometimes as members of Fela’s compound, Kalakuta. It is a quite a feat that Ngaujah is able to hold our attention amidst these lissome, athletic women. To call them sexy would not even begin to do justice to what these talented performers are able to accomplish on stage. Live dynamite is the best description I can think of for what they do. As for the male dancers, their leaps, taps, and swirls demonstrate a prowess that demands both talent and stamina. Rounding out the stellar excellence that is FELA! are the musicians that bring the Fela Kuti endorphin-raising beats to life.
Like many attempts to depict the life of someone who is larger than life, the script for FELA! emphasizes some aspects of Fela Kuti’s like while omitting of downplaying others. The play takes us through Fela’s journeys to England and the United States, his attempts at political life, his brushes with the law, the forming of his compound and the development of his musical ability, which touched the lives of so many in his Nigerian homeland and abroad; however, it is not a complete biography, nor should it be. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, you get your money’s worth from FELA!, as well as an introduction or re-introduction to Fela’s music (which dominates the play) and life.
Thank you to Mirvish for bringing this Broadway and West End production to Toronto. Yeh, yeh!
FELA! runs until Nov. 6