Although the show has more than three weeks of previews before opening on Nov. 23, the off-Broadway hit “Fela!” has Broadway folks buzzing about whether or not the Bill T. Jones dance show will succeed in its move to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.
I saw the Monday night preview and thought the show’s high points were thrilling, but if I was an investor I would be a little nervous about the commercial prospects for a three-hour musical about Nigerian pop culture and politics.
The wonderfully bitchy New York theater chat room — All That Chat (on my Bookmark list below) — has been buzzing pro and con about “Fela!” since it was announced last spring that the show would be moving to Broadway.
The loosely plotted story of the late Nigerian Afrobeat music star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is packed with exciting dance numbers and it has one of the best bands I’ve ever heard in a Broadway theater, but it might be too dance-y and too “foreign” for the folks who come to town looking for mindless fun.
Choreographer-director Jones has been a modern dance star for decades and won a Tony for his “Spring Awakening” choreography two years ago (“Fela!” is playing the same theater where that best musical Tony winner opened and closed a lot faster than it should have).
The dances Jones has put together for “Fela!” are terrific — and they are powered by the really hot on-stage band conducted by Aaron Johnson. Sahr Ngaujah (right) has genuine star quality in the title role, too — acting and singing and dancing himself into a continual emotional frenzy.
What is problematic about “Fela!” is the shapeless book by Jones and Jim Lewis that starts from the premise that we are seeing the final performance of Fela in a Nigerian nightclub and then begins wandering around through biographical and political material that keeps causing the energy level to drop.
Act 2 isn’t as strong as Act 1, so the show loses lots of steam after intermission, except for one spectacular song, “Rain,” by Lillias White in the role of Fela’s political activist mother.
“Fela!” might have become a sensational limited-run hit at Lincoln Center or BAM, but it’s easy to imagine the show at the O’Neill ending up on the Broadway noble failure list with “Passing Strange” and “Caroline, or Change.”