There are times with musicals when the songs just don't really fit with the story. You know the kind of thing - one minute we're in someone's front room and then the characters suddenly burst into song, leaving you wondering what on earth is happening. But here's a musical where the songs are really a necessary and integral part of the plot. For this is the story - almost a celebration in a way - of the life of composer, singer, musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the creator of the musical genre 'Afro-beat'.
As important as the music is the setting or vehicle for this story. The entire auditorium of the massive Olivier theatre has been turned into a Nigerian nightclub. Almost every inch of space on the walls has been covered in paintings and newspaper clippings which change as the story progresses. The club in question is that run by Fela in Lagos, Nigeria during the 1970s which he called 'The Shrine'. And even before the show begins in earnest it is buzzing with Fela's distinctive and infectious music, played by a great band in superb form.
Born in Nigeria, Fela went to London to study at the Trinity College of Music, playing in bands in his spare time and falling under the spell of jazz. Later he travelled to perform in the United States where he was introduced to the writings of Malcolm X and other black activists. And it was in America where Fela developed 'Afro-beat'.
Sahr Ngaujah has the onerous task of playing Fela. I say onerous because it's obvious from the start of this show that he was an enormously charismatic man with a highly individualistic and dominant personality. That doesn't make life easy for any actor. But Sahr Ngaujah seems to have got inside the skin of Fela and produces a forceful and compelling, near mesmerising performance. He sings and dances with great panache and his exertions make him pour with sweat as he leads the narrative and indeed the entire show from start to finish.
Marina Draghici's design is incredibly detailed as well as joyously colourful. Even the backs of the doors leading into the auditorium are covered with paintings, and the effect is almost overpowering. Bill T. Jones directs and also handles the choreography quite brilliantly. The dancing is vibrantly dynamic and hugely energetic as one might expect. The support from the sizeable cast is excellent, especially from Fela's 'Queens', the moving vocals of Melanie Marshall who plays Fela's mother, and Paulette Ivory as Sandra.
'Fela!' is a different kind of musical, especially for the National to produce, which shows there's still plenty of innovation to be found at this venue. The overall effect is quite stunning, and Fela's life story is undoubtedly inspiring. However, I think there was more to be said about Fela's political stance, even if there are some graphic details about the consequences of his defiance against the military government. There were also occasions when the story seemed to meander a little and the impetus began to wane in spite of the richness of the music, visuals and performances. Still, with musicals dominating the listings, this is a welcome change in that theatrical genre and should prove a good night out so long as you don't mind being a part of the action for at least some of the evening - yes, audience participation is an element and almost impossible to resist.
"Somehow Bill T Jones’s production proceeds in fits and starts without ever achieving a satisfying dramatic momentum. I longed for a stronger sense of narrative, and more depth beyond the showbiz razzle-dazzle"
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"It's a loud, brash, energetic spectacle...While musically impressive, the production could do with a stronger book. The story is flimsy and confused, and there's a lack of narrative drive."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The best bits, for me, were those that make you feel on your pulses why Fela's music, with its sarcastic pidgin lyrics and obstinately insistent rhythms."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It's a great story, and one told with enormous verve in Bill T Jones's kaleidoscopic production. The dancing is ecstatic, the music lifts the spirits, and the stage is alive with movement...I've never seen a show quite like it at the National. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian