Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bulletin from Broadway No. 7: 'Fela!'

Sahr Ngaujah in‭ ‬Fela‭!

By Hap Erstein

My season-end Broadway visit is coming to a close,‭ ‬and it is fair to say it has been a surprisingly strong year for plays and a pretty disappointing one for musicals.

Tony Award nominations get announced Tuesday and the committee is going to have to be pretty creative to fill some of the musical categories.‭ (‬There are only two musicals with original scores,‭ ‬so the eligibility branch has declared such plays as Enron and Fences to be nomination-worthy for their incidental music.‭)

Not only will the‭ ‬2009-2010‭ ‬be remembered for some woeful new shows and even worse revivals,‭ ‬but as the season when plot became virtually absent from the musical landscape.‭ ‬I probably made a mistake in not seeing‭ ‬American Idiot,‭ ‬based on the Green Day concept album,‭ ‬which director Michael Mayer cobbled into a plotless story about three suburban guys confronting adulthood,‭ ‬but it typifies this dubious trend.

The same goes for‭ ‬Million Dollar Quartet,‭ ‬the recreation of a recording session among emerging stars Johnny Cash,‭ ‬Jerry Lee Lewis,‭ ‬Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.‭ ‬And if there is a plot to Twyla Tharp’s dance concert‭ ‬Come Fly Away,‭ ‬I missed it.

I guess you could say the same for the explosive‭ ‬Fela‭!‬,‭ ‬a musically vibrant,‭ ‬high-energy biography of the late Nigerian songwriter-performer-political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti,‭ ‬but the show is so infectious that the lack of a story line seems irrelevant.‭ ‬Bill T.‭ ‬Jones‭ (‬Tony winner for the dance moves of‭ ‬Spring Awakening‭) ‬directs and choreographs a cast of high-stepping,‭ ‬tush-shaking dancers who roam throughout the aisles,‭ ‬while Sahr Ngaujah as Fela gets the audience up on its feet for a little tribal dancing and call-and-response singing.

Broadway has been slow to embrace other cultures,‭ ‬but‭ ‬Fela‭!‬ takes a major leap into the exotic,‭ ‬beat-heavy world of Fela’s Afrika Shrine club.‭ ‬The show has been able to draw a sizeable,‭ ‬enthusiastic audience and it will be interesting to see whether Tony Awards will follow,‭ ‬because there really is no traditional musical to fall back on this season.

‭ * * *

Trying to wash away the bad taste left by‭ ‬The Addams Family,‭ ‬I headed off Friday to the Museum of the City of New York to take in a wonderful exhibit of cartoons,‭ ‬drawings and New Yorker covers by Charles Addams,‭ ‬a reminder that,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬he can be funny when he is not being clumsily re-interpreted on Broadway.‭ ‬The exhibit traces the gradual invention of the Addams family unit,‭ ‬which perversely was discouraged from appearing in‭ ‬The New Yorker after Gomez,‭ ‬Morticia and the clan became too‭ “‬commercial‭” ‬after they had their own sitcom on television.

The exhibit continues through June‭ ‬8.‭

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