Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Fela" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

How do you rate this show? Act One is tremendous, filled with intoxicating and nonstop music, actors and dancers at the top of their game, and costumes and choreography that make you think about the great stage musicals (and concerts) you have seen. The band is smoking! They play for ten minutes before the lights even go down.

Act One is all about the legendary Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (played superbly by Sahr Ngaujah).

But in Act Two Fela so loves his mother that he gives her his only begotten musical. In a magical-realism segment that makes you think that if this is Heaven you are definitely going to run outside and lie, cheat and maim just to avoid having to go there, Fela and his Mom do a set piece that will not die. It's a bun-squirmer. In Act One you couldn't sit down and in Act Two you don't dare stand up.

Chiseled and acrobatic Ngaujah as Fela is the show all by himself, though he has capable help in Melaine Marshall as Sandra, Ismael Kouyate as Ismael, Gelan Lambert as JK, Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green as Mustafa and Melanie Marshall as Fela's mother Funmilayo.

In Act One we are reminded how we felt when we saw the show in New York. It won three Tonys, but none of the big ones and none for music or acting. Our feeling then was that the stage was too big for this show. But here at the Curran, Fela is intimate, the way he would have been in his own Shrine Club in Lagos. You see him, you feel him and he makes you understand the soul of his music. The first part of Act One, where he explains the origins of the sound he came to embody, manages to be intimate and huge at the same time. The politics of his time make his music feel inevitable. At Intermission we can't wait for Act Two.

In Act Two we realize this is a small stage, there are too many people on it and they have to go through too many hi-jinks to keep themselves in motion, especially with Mama up in Heaven and Fela on a white ladder trying to reach up to her. After "Zombie," the huge worldwide mega-hit that occurs here as Song 3 in Act Two, Fela's part in the show is effectively over. It's all Melanie Marshall from that point on and -- well, the show isn't really about her, is it?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division had an emergency meeting about how to rate this show. Act One truly deserves Four Stars at a minimum, while Act Two would gather perhaps One for "Zombie" and another for "Water No Get Enemy." So this averages out to Three Stars. Three Stars means go see the show.

But tickets are expensive and you must sit in the middle because the sound towers block sight lines for anyone sitting on the sides -- you can't even read the necessary translations which are projected behind the actors so the Nigerian patois can be understood.

The bauble of shame is for the last half of Act Two. If you do not love Fela's mother as much as he did, all the Orishas in the world cannot make you care.

If you want to see fabulous music and understand the life of a world music icon, go see "Fela." Certainly don't miss the standout Act One. What you do after Intermission is up to you.

The Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through December 11

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