Sunday, December 13, 2009

Theater Review: Fela!

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! Photo: Monique Carboni

Lots of Passion, Hip Action and a Club Atmosphere
By Lauren Yarger
Part news reel, part dance club, Broadway’s Fela! is a burst of energy and visual stimulation, but beyond providing two hours and 40 minutes of almost non-stop music, choreography and special effects, the show fails to move beyond that and bring home the main character as one who deserves such a celebration.

It’s one of those shows that’s entertaining while you are watching it, but which quickly fades once you leave the theater.

Part of my sense of detachment from the story of the Nigerian singer, sax player, band leader, club star-turned-politician, probably comes from the fact that I had never heard of him before this show. I don’t know whether this is from being too young to be aware of him at the time, a lack of news coverage about African music and Africa in general or the failure of high school and college history teachers to include Kuti’s influence on music and his establishment of the independent nation/commune of the Kalakuta Republic in the lesson plans (probably all three). The result, however, is the feeling that you’re attending a party where everyone is celebrating, but you’re not sure why.

It’s one exciting party, though, that much is clear. Bill T. Jones (conceiver/director/choreographer/book writer) tells Kuti’s story (Jim Lewis also co-conceived and co-wrote the book and additional lyrics) to the musician’s own African/Latin/Jazz beat (Aaron Johnson, musical direction) and lyrics in a stunning setting (Marina Draghici, set and amazing costume design) that explodes from the stage up the walls to the ceiling of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where I suggest you sit in the balcony so you can appreciate all the colors, lyrics, posters and projected images.

Jones also puts his dancers through an amazing workout. The moves evoke African tribal, tap and ballet dances and never stop. Two dancers move in the wings while the audience files in prior to the show so the action really starts before the action. At one point Fela, performed superbly and passionately by Sahr Ngaujah, gets the audience up on their feet and thrusting their hips to coordinates on an individual “clock” at his commands. This hip movement shows up in most of the choreography, and while I have nothing but respect for the dancers who make it look so easy (I would need hip replacement surgery after each show), I soon grew tired of having the cast flip their “six o’clocks” at me. (By the way, because the role of Fela is so strenuous, Kevin Mambo regularly takes over for some performances).

The monotonous few-note beat and few-word lyrics of Kuti’s music soon grew tedious for me despite the constant motion. I found my mind wandering, thankfully brought back to the stage by excellent visual and lighting effects. A poster turns into the image of Fela’s political activist mother Funmilayo (a belting Lillas White); a starburst follows her as she walks; rain falls across a scrim and all are exceptionally executed (Peter Nigrini; projection; Robert Wierzel, lighting).

In the middle of all the sensory stimulation, I couldn’t find enough to like about the character of Fela to engage and join in the celebration, however. He is inspired at one point by a woman he meets in a club, Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh). He goes to London to study. He’s influenced by African-American leaders of the 1960s and finally understands his mother’s political activism. He joins the cause against the corruption in Nigeria’s government which eventually results in his imprisonment and torture and his mother’s violent death.

He’s portrayed as a hero, and apparently he did help shape a form of music and give Nigerian people hope, but my introduction to a musician with a hit album called “Zombie’ proclaiming himself king of a commune nation made me scoff and think of him more as self-serving than as a great hero. Some of his actions, like using drugs and asking all the women in his life to marry him at once (apparently he married 27 wives in 1978 and then rotated them so as not to have more than 12 at a time until he finally divorced them all and died of complications from AIDS) are not exactly awe-inspiring.

So I’m sure other critics will love this show, and you’ll certainly see some well-deserved Tony nominations for Fela! come May, but for me, this musical felt more like being at a loud, flashy club with a bunch of people very excited about something I wasn’t relating to than sitting in theater enjoying a Broadway show.

Fela! runs at the O’Neill, 230 West 49th Street. For discounted tickets that benefit Masterwork Productions, click here (make sure you indicate the religious charity you wish to support is Masterworks).

Christians might also like to know:
• Show posts a Mature Advisory
• Language
• Violence/torture depicted
• Depiction of a man on a toilet relieving himself
• Consulting of other gods and speaking to the dead
• Song praises Allah

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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