On Screen: Revisiting “Fela!”

February 24, 2011

When I saw Bill T. Jones’ heart-stopping “Fela!” last summer on Broadway, I felt as if I were encased in a womb of sound and movement. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered in a lifetime of Broadway performances, even though I really had no clue as to who Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was until then.

But Bill T. Jones was a concert artist who didn’t lower his standards to appeal to a wide range of people. Instead he raised the bar as to what we should get from a show — artistry, imagination, pushing the envelope and taking us with it.

So I was enthusiastic about heading to the Oaks Theater in Oakmont to catch “Fela!” again, this time presented by Great Britain’s National Theater and filmed for its “National Theater Live” series. The film was full of extra goodies, including an interview with Bill and his impromptu bow at the end. And while it couldn’t compete with the bracing experience of this sensurround musical, it provided extra camera angles from the back of the stage, allowing the viewer to see Fela interact with his band, and close-ups of the performance that heightened Bill’s vision.

Bill wisely kept Tony-nominated Sahr Ngaujah in the title role — I had not seen him in the Broadway version — and he had the cool ease and stage command that compelled you to watch. Within the microcosm of the performance, he out-dramatized the original Fela (which you can compare in the first and third Youtube clips here.) The other roles seemed to be filled with Brits — Melanie Marshall as the omnipresent mother, Funmilayo and Paulette Ivory as love interest Sandra, even the dancers and musicians.

Interestingly it gave “Fela!,” shall we say, a polite overlay. On Broadway the dancers had more physical variety (actually in keeping with Bill’s own tastes) and the musicians came from a Brooklyn Afrobeat band, Antibalas. The raw ethnicity of their performances added a real bite to the production. In the British production, the dancers had the clean lines of extensive ballet and modern training, even a similar physicality, and the musicians seemed tamer.

Perhaps the most marked difference was visible in the role of Funmilayo. Broadway’s Lillias White won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her gut-wrenching performance of Funmilayo, which reached its zenith as she powered through “Rain.” Melanie Marshall rendered the song with consummate control more in an operatic vein.

But then, the British always had manners. To its credit, the London “Fela!” might have lacked grit, but it still had spirit.

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