When the planned early-2012 revival of Funny Girl at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre was abruptly cancelled last month, it left an unexpected hole in the theatre's schedule. Fortunately, Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith have ridden to the rescue by moving the tour dates of their acclaimed musical Fela! around. It is now playing at the Ahmanson through January 22nd.
One wouldn't think of this biographical portrait of the Afrobeat pioneer and Nigerian political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997, as typical holiday fare. It is undeniably festive, though, especially during its more upbeat first act. Sahr Ngaujah -- who created the title role on Broadway and was subsequently nominated for a Tony Award -- reprised his performance opening night and immediately, impressively had the audience in his hand. (At some performances, Adesola Osakalumi will play Fela). Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones and the book by Jones and Jim Lewis incorporate considerable opportunities for audience interaction, and we were all too willing to shout back, get on our feet and even dance along with Ngaujah and other members of the show's multi-talented cast.
The musical's action is set within and around a re-creation of the Shrine, a massive dance hall that Fela founded in Lagos, Nigeria. He informs the audience at the start that this is to be his last appearance at the Shrine, as Fela is becoming increasingly involved politically in the wake of his mother's brutal death at the hands of the police several months earlier. Moving back and forth in time, key moments in Fela's musical and political awakening are presented. The show's more surreal second half culminates in a metaphysical reunion between Fela and his mother, Funmilayo (a vocally impressive and suitably ethereal Melanie Marshall). The mostly riveting songs throughout are Fela's own, with occasional additional lyrics contributed by co-book writer Lewis.
Gay audiences will likely eat Fela! up thanks to its endlessly engaging theatricality, high-energy dance numbers, and considerable display of Ngaujah's and the male dancers' toned physiques. To its detriment, though, Fela! fails to acknowledge the activist's AIDS-related death. This is especially odd given how contemporary the musical's other social concerns are, including the current Occupy Movement. Fela himself somewhat understandably kept his illness a secret, however he may have contracted it, but his brother revealed the cause of Fela's death shortly after. The musical's unwillingness to mention AIDS while admiringly noting Fela's "harem" of wives, which in reality numbered more than a dozen, struck me as especially egregious.
Though imperfect, Fela! remains political, sensual and challenging, as the best theatre always is. Click here for tickets or additional information about the LA run of Fela!
Reverend's Rating: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.