Fela, which chronicles the life of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, is a kinetic, multimedia experience that explodes nightly at the Eugene O'Neill. Fela, who created Afrobeat, a blend of jazz, funk, bass and Yoruban chants, welcomes audiences to The Shrine, his club in Lagos, Nigeria. For rebel Fela, music is his weapon against the corrupt military dictatorship that rules his country.
For Broadway audiences, Fela is a stunning departure from traditional musicals. The pounding, rhythmic score is courtesy of Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, aided by an extraordinary array of female dancers and the hypnotic choreography of Bill T. Jones, who also directs. The production, enhanced by Marina Draghici's set and costumes, immerses audiences in a celebration of sight, sound and motion.
Fela, played by an astounding Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah, who rotate the lead role, is angry, charismatic and troubled. The musical opens in 1978, after the police have raided his compound, tortured many of Fela's wives (his "queens," 27 in all) and murdered his beloved mother Funmilayo (Lillias White). Flashing graphics and African art surround the stage; Fela's narrative focuses on his music and complicated relationship with black power and politics. His music galvanized a brutalized people and his bravery (and theirs) is impressive.
Despite its considerable aural power, there are some gaps: Fela's AIDS-related death isn't mentioned, and the show could lose 15 minutes, gain a bit more back story, and still retain its vibrancy. However, as a whole, Fela is both visually arresting and theatrically memorable.
For many women, their emotional trials and tribulations are remembered by clothing. At least, that's the premise of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, written by Nora and Delia Ephron and based on the book by Ilene Beckerman. Starring a rotating cast of five actresses, who read from scripts, the play at the Westside Theater is an intimate show -- more revealing chat than traditional staged fare.
Love, Loss covers all the passages in a woman's life -- from first bra to menopause -- with understanding, humor and efficiency. The shoes, purses and prom dresses that punctuate these moments, sometimes crazy, often touching, add to the verisimilitude. One of the best bits is the paean to black: "Sometimes I buy something that isn't black, and I put it on and I am so sorry."
Like The Vagina Monologues, the production had attracted a stellar cast, including Katie Finneran, Samantha Bee, Carol Kane, Natasha Lyonne, Debra Monk and Michele Lee. All are collectively wonderful and, literally, on the same page.
By contrast, Tony-nominated actor David Pittu, who was a scream in the 2008 off-Broadway musical What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, is happily reprising his role in What The World Needs Now, Jan. 17-18 at Joe's Pub.
Pittu, joined by Peter Bartlett, plays Sterling, a blinkered show queen who describes himself as a "living, American musical theater composer working in an age of terror." What's That Smell highlighted wonderfully awful songs from various unproduced Sterling musicals, such as Private Benjamin, and sent up every conceivable musical pretension -- personal and artistic.
Pittu, a noted character actor (LoveMusik, Is He Dead?), is adept at smart satire; he wrote the book and lyrics for both shows, while Randy Redd composed the music. What The World Needs Now features Sterling, circa 2010. And for those who appreciate affectionate swipes at musical theater, Jacob Sterling hits a high note.