Review: Fela! The Musical

Last week I went to see Fela! at the National Theatre, after procrastinating since November for no good reason. (I would highly recommend if you've been doing the same you grab one of the last remaining tickets since it ends on Jan 23rd).

Part of me was dubious, mainly because it was difficult to imagine a form of theatre as Westernized as a musical being able to adequately portray with integrity the political and cultural views of a figure who was so against European cultural imperialism (in a theatre sponsored by Shell Oil and other companies who might feature in a 2011 version of ITT!). Despite that all of the feedback I'd heard from my fellow Nigerians was overwhelmingly positive, and as I discovered rightly so.

The show is set at The Shrine, as though we were watching Fela live in concert. As you can see from the video above the casting, music and choreography was impeccable, Sahr Ngaujah's performance is uncanny at times, though his version of Fela was more vulnerable and excitable than the laid back and supremely confident man in the film Music Is The Weapon. Probably because he wasn't actually smoking weed (though the puff puff pass banter with the audience whilst sitting in the National Theatre was an unexpected and delightfully naughty moment).

The central theme the musical kept returning to was Fela's simultaneous desire to stay and fight the government or to give up the fight and leave Nigeria when the going got tough, always tempered by the warrior-like strength of the women surrounding him, who bore much of the brunt of the punishment (his omnipresent mother Funmilayo being thrown from a window to her death, and the numerous unimaginable atrocities inflicted on the wives who lived in his compound by the soldiers who destroyed it).

It was interesting that the story of Sandra Smith, a Black Panther Fela met in LA, was heavily incorporated, at first as a key inspiration for his political awakening, and then as a kind of translator as she dueted on many of the songs. This was the only point of contention for me, as she felt like a hangover from the Broadway version of the show and was one of the few showy, obvious musical theatre elements which seemed like overkill when there were projected subtitles. The other more Western elements that appeared seemingly to spice things up mainly came through the choreography (barrel jumps and occasional jazz hands), and so were less noticeable to the untrained eye, keeping the feeling distinctly African.

There is something particularly exciting about the fact that Fela's story lives on as legend, not just in Nigeria or in Africa, but in the heart of the cultural institutions of countries whose dealings in Africa he so railed against. I wonder if it is a testament to our commitment to freedom of expression, or a confidence born of the knowledge that little can touch the status quo. Either way, the spirit of revolution felt alive and well. It will be interesting to see what will happen if the show does manage to travel to Lagos as is rumoured, a city where popular music and politics have diverged recently, and yet over a million people attended Fela's funeral just 14 years ago.