Review: FELA! (Mirvish)

Mirvish presents the hit Broadway musical FELA! at Toronto’s Canon Theatre through November 6, 2011.

When Sahr Ngaujah leaps out onto the stage as the title character in FELA! and cries out, “Let me hear you say, ‘yeah, yeah’”, the audience responds with an exuberant, “Yeah, yeah!” Our instinctive enthusiasm is ultimately well placed for this heart-pounding and thrilling performance.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti isn’t exactly a household name and many of us are probably unaware of who he was. A gifted Nigerian musician, Kuti was the father of the Afrobeat jazz genre of music, a fusion of jazz, funk, rock and traditional West African music and rhythms.

He was also an outspoken social and political activist; his mother was a feminist and civil rights activist. His music was politically charged and he often railed against Nigeria’s corrupt ruling military regimes, Western imperialism and corporate greed.

As might be expected of a firebrand in a totalitarian environment, Kuti was arrested over 200 times and severely beaten. Kalakuta, the compound he built in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, was burned to the ground in a raid by soldiers and his followers were intimidated and tortured yet he remained defiant and outspoken.

You’d expect a show set against the backdrop of such serious subject matter would be a bit heavy but FELA! is an exuberant, uplifting celebration of Kuti’s legacy. The show avoids using a heavy-handed approach in favour of relying on Kuti’s own music and lyrics to tell his story in broad strokes.

After seeing the show I can see why Kuti was so influential, his music is infectious! I know I couldn’t help tapping my foot or swaying to the beat in my seat and I challenge you to sit still through this show.

Conceived, written and directed by Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, the show places as much emphasis on dance and movement as it does on music and, as expected, the dance is exhilarating. The African-inspired choreography is so organically integrated into the storytelling that it just feels natural. At no point in the show did I feel like I was watching a dance recital.

The first thing you notice when entering the theatre is the impeccable evocation of the setting. The set evokes Kuti’s famous club known as “The Shrine.” The band is playing and actors are milling about on stage and entering through the house. You really get a sense of being transported to this place.

When Kuti emerges on stage he speaks directly to the audience as if we were guests at his nightclub. The show basically unfolds as a series of narrative monologues as Kuti sketches out the key moments of his life. These monologues set the context for Kuti’s songs which allow the audience to access the pivotal moments of his life. The show is a jukebox-musical of sorts, although it’s unlikely that Kuti’s records appeared in many actual jukeboxes.

Sahr Ngaujah of the original Broadway cast reprises his Tony Award-nominated role in the Toronto run. He’s an unbelievably talented performer; he’s captivating as Kuti and delivers a breathtaking performance. The success of the show relies on his ability to engage the audience and he seems tireless as he sings, dances and banters with the audience throughout the two and a half hour show. I never got tired of watching him.

Ngaujah provides an engaging, charismatic, sympathetic and likeable portrayal of Kuti even as the show glances over some of the man’s less endearing character traits; his narcissism, hubris and bigamy are quickly tossed aside after cursory mentions.

Likewise, the show doesn’t exactly explore its broader historical and political context in much depth and, as a result, I found some of the darker scenes in the second act, like the staging of the military raid on Kalakuta, a bit jarring in the context of the rest of the show.

As much as the show is dominated by Kuti’s character, two prominent females in his life serve to provide some balance; his mother, Funmilayo, is played by Melanie Marshall who has a radiant presence and stunningly versatile voice. Kuti’s feisty, one-time American love interest Sandra is played by Paulette Ivory, a powerhouse who delivers another knockout vocal performance.

While making my way around the Canon Theatre’s crowded lobby at last night’s premiere, I was also struck by the diversity of the audience. People of all ages and cultural backgrounds were represented. I really appreciate the fact that Mirvish is presenting shows that appeal to diverse audiences.

With its infectious music and heart-pounding choreography FELA! is a show that will make you want to leap out of your seat and dance in the aisles and ultimately, I can’t think of a more fitting celebration of Kuti’s life and musical legacy.

Details:

  • FELA! is playing at the Canon Theatre (244 Victoria Street,Toronto) until November 6, 2011
  • Performance Schedule: Tuesday – Friday 8PM; Saturday 2PM & 8PM; Sunday 2PM & 7PM
  • Tickets: $35.00 – $130.00
  • Tickets are available online at www.mirvish.com or by phone, call Ticketking at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333

Photo credit:

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! – Photo Credit ©Monique Carboni

One thought on “Review: FELA! (Mirvish)”

  1. … maybe perhaps to help fill-in for that deficit of context (the author mentions above, “the show doesn’t exactly explore its broader historical and political context in much depth”), if the subject whets one’s interest, there’s a doc by stephane tchal-gadjieff and jean jacques flori floating around on youtube that’s worth checking out … plus, it includes some footage of performances that’ll blow you out of your seat (it’s cool to know the musical recreates that infectious energy) …

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