In the past decade or so, the “jukebox” musical has come to dominate Broadway, much to the chagrin of musical theater purists. Shows built around a canon of existing popular songs, either by a particular artist or genre or decade, have multiplied and spread like an infectious disease, threatening to consume the foundation of original plots and scores that have paved the Great White Way for decades.
Audiences have been flocking to the familiar in all shapes and sizes from the cleverly-integrated songs of ABBA in Mamma Mia! to the dance-centered interpretation of Billy Joel music in Twyla Tharp’s inspired Movin’ Out to the 80s metal era in Rock of Ages and the story of the rise of the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys.
It’s the latter that might be the closest cousin to Fela! but to even draw a relationship between the harmonizing Italian foursome and Fela Kuti, the Nigerian political activist and creator of the Afro-beat musical genre, would be a bit of a stretch.
Still, in a similar vein, the show uses the dynamic rhythms of Kuti’s music and the powerful social messages he dispenses to reveal a man of extraordinary talent, passion, and depth and a story that is as inspiring as it is larger-than-life.
And just the man to tell the tale is Bill T. Jones, one of America’s most prolific contemporary choreographers and, to my mind, still one of the most daring and innovative. This story is a story about the power of music to revolutionize (a perfect Broadway theme!) but it’s a story whose heart and explosive energy come from the body and is conveyed through movement.
The high kicks and sexy shimmies of Les Cagelles are a scandalous and titillating treat. The lifts and flings on Memphis’ dance floor add a spirited accent to the show’s more lively tunes. But in Fela!, the African dancing is the show’s spine, it’s rock-solid core. It solicits a kinesthetic response, allowing the show to be a participatory communal experience. The beautiful men and women of the ensemble (the latter of whom Charles Isherwood found a bit too provocative, as he writes here) offer a celebration of the body that moves between the worlds of ritual, tradition, spirituality, and pure joy.
Each dancer in his or her individualized way sent waves of energy into the theater. And it is at these most frenzied physical moments of the show that we can best understand the influence and effect of this man. As I sat mesmerized – hypnotized? – by the grace of the dancers, it was clear how the music of Fela Kuti could stir a nation.