Review by Kwaku
I missed the first UK run of this musical when it played at London's National Theatre last year. It's a testament to its popularity that it's returned to the London stage in less than one year. First of all, I think it's great that African music, and not such a mainstream African artist like Fela Kuti, has been given such a prominent space in a major London theatre.
If you like Afro-beat music, or if you like Fela, then catch this musical is for you. However if your admiration for Fela is mainly from his socio-political standpoint, this may not be too much to your liking, simply because although it's not ignored, the singing and dancing overwhelms the his politicism to the extent that chants of "black power" sounded like emasculated exhortations.
I was impressed to see Fela's legacy had attracted a pretty much full house on the day I attended - the musical is runs until Aug. 28 2011. However, as a fan who had not only bought and loved his albums, but had seen him on stage and met him at close quarters, I was somewhat disappointed that for majority of the audience, both the mainly European audience and the smattering of Africans, what seemed to gain the most applause was the wiggling of the female dancers' bottoms!
Also, although I do not believe any race should have a monopoly over music, it nevertheless jarred on me and seemed very incongruous thst although the setting was Fela's Shrine, where he and his Africa 70 band would jam for hours on end, all the musicians on stage bar one, were European. I don't fault their musicianship. But it was nevertheless aesthetically wrong, plus the message it seemed to be sending was that there weren't any capable African musicians in London! And before anyone tries to throw in the equality card, then why weren't any of the dancers/actors non-African?
Sadler's Wells is famous for its dance productions, so it's not surprising that Fela! isn't just about Fela's music, but also about dancing - lots of it! So if you're a fan of choreography, you will love it. In the programme which lasts two hours and forty minutes, including a twenty minute interval, much of Fela's life story was touched upon - I particularly liked the scene which highlighted Fela's relationship with Sandra Izsadore, the African-American woman who had a great influence on Fela musically and politically. It was depicted by Fela - played brilliantly by Sahr Ngaujah, having to go through so may books by African-American political thinkers and scholars like WEB Du Bois and Malcolm X.
As I said, the singers and dancers were all great, however I was particularly impressed by the somewhat operatic voice of Melanie Marshall, who played Fela's mum Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. You couldn't leave without releasing the important role Fela's mum played in his life. There was a lot of humour and audience engagement in Sahr's depiction of Fela. And I got a different perspective on the story to do with how Fela outwitted the authorities who were waiting to get a sample of his stool to check for evidence of drug consumption. Like Bob Marley, one can't run away from the fact that Fela was well known for his use of ganja, which was depicted by Sahr smoking a giant joint.
Fela was also liberal with his use of expletives, coupled with the sometimes sexual language and dance, made me wonder why there were a few children in the house. I can only imagine their parents are liberal or they could not get child care.
Being in Ghana when James Brown copyist Geraldo Pino blazed across Ghana and much of West Africa in the late 1960s, thereby popularising American R&B (before then we were very much influenced by white Anglo/American pop music!), the short reference to Geraldo impact whilst Fela was finding his musical feet, resonated with me. In addition to the great sound and musicianship, it's worth pointing out the fine use of lighting and visual effects.
There are some weekend matinee performances that start at 2.30pm. For more details or booking: www.sadlerswells.com.
It's about a 5 minute walk from Angel tube station.
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