Sure, there are things wrong with Fela!, the musical directed by Bill T. Jones about the life and times of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer. It doesn’t have much of a plot: All we hear is that we’re in the Afrika Shrine, his Lagos performance space, in 1978, as Fela—repeatedly beaten and jailed by the military government—performs what he claims will be his final show in Nigeria. The book barely develops its secondary characters and glosses over Kuti’s character flaws: his rages, his alienation of his band, his assertions that real men don’t wear condoms (and his death from AIDS). Even last fall’s thrilling Off Broadway production of Fela! had its longueurs, and the cavernous Eugene O’Neill Theatre isn’t kind to those slow spots.
But seriously, who cares? As an evening’s entertainment, Fela! is without peer: two and a half hours of electrifying music, astonishing dancing, and virtuosic stagecraft, anchored by a star turn as charismatic, and as taxing, as I’ve ever seen on Broadway. How charismatic? Fela’s a ringmaster, a bandleader, and the cult guru of the Shrine. And how taxing? He rarely leaves the stage, singing and dancing and joking like a demon—oh, and visiting his dead mother in the underworld. It’s draining enough that two actors alternate the role.
Which Fela should you see? Kevin Mambo, new to the show, is stern and at times bitter, commanding the stage with a kind of arrogant majesty. Sahr Ngaujah, who starred Off Broadway, is fun-loving and celebratory, his anger running deep beneath the born-showman’s surface. They’re both terrific, but Ngaujah’s rapport with his band and co-stars brings the show fully alive, and his transformation in the show’s second act is more profound.
Jones’s choreography is fluid and gorgeous, mixing traditional African moves with modern expressiveness and a generous dose of booty-shaking. (Seriously, if you don’t spend a portion of Fela! staring at the amazing asses onstage, you’re just not doing your job.) His management of the show’s complex technical demands is remarkable; fascinating video projections pepper the ramshackle set, and Robert Wierzel’s lighting illuminates a smoky club, the glowing underworld, and Marina Draghici’s wild costumes vividly. The music, by the Brooklyn ensemble Antibalas, is as tight as Fela’s stomach.
Fela! is so inventive, in fact, that I wish the producers had found a way to be more innovative in its presentation. The best vibes in the audience come from the dancing, screaming kids in the standing-room balconies to either side of the house. Given the concert conceit of Fela!, and the audience participation that its stars encourage, I wish they’d just ripped the first ten rows out of the orchestra and sold those spots for ten bucks to music lovers. It probably would’ve violated a fire code or some union contract, but it also might’ve helped the energy in the crowd match the exceptional energy onstage. —D.K.
It would be a pleasure to report that The Starry Messenger—so publicly beset with massive rewrites and attendant memorization issues, a cast defection, and the personal travails of its writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan—is, if not a surprise moonshot triumph, then at least an Apollo 13–style save. Alas, it’s a ditch, at best. In his finest work (1996’s This Is Our Youth and the 2000 indie-film masterpiece You Can Count On Me), Lonergan is a poet of empty spaces: between people, between moments, between sequestered lives that ache for a saving touch. He works the dark matter of mortal melancholy that invisibly suffuses our workaday comings and goings, our dutiful little lies and pretenses. He fixes on those stabs of soul-ache and confusion that come in the night, in the vacuum, in the quiet times we try so desperately to avoid. So it’s no surprise that The Starry Messenger, like the universe itself, is mostly empty space. But it’s the most-overcrowded empty space you’ll ever visit, and you may spend the better part of three hours trying to escape.
For most of the play, we follow Mark, a wilted, spiritless planetarium lecturer (Matthew Broderick, predictably Prufrockian, but unpredictably fiery—he seems to be fusing his own actorly frustrations with his character’s ontological ones, to occasionally great effect). Mark embarks on an extramarital affair with Angela, a much younger Puerto Rican nursing student (Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno, looking lost). Angela is, far too neatly, Mark’s exact metaphysical opposite. He’s a collapsed singularity of depressed secular humanism; she’s the earthy epitome of intuitive spirituality. Their relationship is neither convincing nor compelling, and it is, unfortunately, the nucleus of the show.
With no gravitational center, The Starry Messenger drifts, character orbits loosen and unmoor themselves, and the best moments (most of which involve the superb supporting cast, notably J. Smith-Cameron as Mark’s fussy, fixating wife) spiral off into the dark. Large swaths of dialogue become mere talk. I’ve never heard theatrical speech sound so dispiritingly, stupefyingly mimetic of actual human conversation, in all of its droning tedium. It’s too bad Lonergan doesn’t trust his own silences. Instead, he nervously fills the space (bounded by a pitiless black-walled star-chamber set that instantly suffocates what little light and heat the play gives off) with maundering yammer, false starts, and, deep in the second act, a shockingly miscalculated Hail Mary of melodrama. When he gets stuck—and he gets stuck a lot—Lonergan shows us the stars, but what little we can actually see, through all that writerly debris, is nebulous. —S.B.