The return summer engagement of the 2009 bio-musical Fela!, based on the life of Fela Kuti as inspired by Carlos Moore’s book Fela: This Bitch of a Life, opened last night to somewhat mixed but generally positive reviews. For the record, the creative team includes Jim Lewis (book, addl. lyrics), Bill T. Jones (book, direction, choreography), Fela Kuti (lyrics, music), Aaron Johnson (addl. music, orchestration, music direction), Jordan McLean (addl. music), Marina Draghici (sets, costumes), Robert Wierzel (lights), Robert Kaplowitz (sound), Peter Nigrini (projections), and Cookie Jordan (hair, makeup). The cast includes Sahr Ngaujah (Fela), Paulette Ivory (Sandra), Rasaan-Elijah Green (Djembe-“Mustafa”), Ismael Kouyaté (Ismael), Gelan Lambert (Egungun, etc.), and Melanie Marshall (Funmilayo).
Dan Bacalzo (Theater Mania): Ultimately, the main reason to see Fela! remains the driving beat of the music coupled with the show’s highly kinetic dances. The talented company throw themselves into Jones’ spirited choreography, which is mostly characterized by hip gyrations that are both earthy and sexual.
Ben Brantley (N.Y. Times): Fela! incorporates the spirit of summertime insurrection as infectiously as any show I can think of. As staged by the choreographer Bill T. Jones, and written by Mr. Jones with Jim Lewis, Fela! translates one man’s life into a nonstop banquet of movement both sensuous and angry. And though this production has been on the road … it shows no signs whatsoever of flagging. … The number that best captures this production’s essence comes early. It’s a piece resonantly titled “Originality/Yellow Fever,” and it allows the different performers to embody the elements of Afrobeat style. There’s no question that they’re all drinking from the same musical source, but each also emerges as a brilliant solo artist. … In Fela! dancing isn’t just entertainment – it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Matthew Murray (Talkin’ Broadway): When the musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2008, and moved to the Main Stem the following year, it was in a suffocatingly environmental production that strove to not just immerse you but catapult you onstage. … This version of the show, simply put, can’t do that – and doesn’t really try. It’s understandable … but this innate inability has led to an evening that’s more conventional and less effective than what New York audiences had previously been exposed to. … You get a decent approximation but not the conflagration you’re constantly being promised. Still, these are concerns of sharpest interest to New Yorkers who’ve already experienced Fela! … If you somehow missed the show on its first two Manhattan appearances, this version is good enough to warrant a first look and a listen.
David Sheward (Back Stage): The touring version is making a brief Broadway summer stopover, but it feels more like a party than a challenging piece of political theater. … In the previous incarnations it felt as if the Nigerian army really was right outside of the stage door and you risked arrest just by being in your seat. It was thrillingly immediate and brought a dimension of fear to the proceedings. … Despite this ratcheting down of intensity, Sahr Ngaujah retains his blazing charisma and dazzling musical and dramatic versatility as he continues in his Tony-nominated performance of the title role. … Once again, a highlight of the show is an accelerating challenge dance in which each member of the powerhouse chorus gets a white-hot solo. But the real star is Ngaujah.