Both shows are completely different but they are two of the most important musicals to open this season and attention must be paid, especially from yours truly.
I don’t quite know how to start with Fela! The new musical is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and that’s a good thing. The show is a fascinating, riveting and very infectious entertainment that uses the life story of Fela and his music to showcase his impressive achievements as a musician and activist.
The Eugene O’Neill Theatre has been transformed into his nightclub. The premise: it’s Fela’s last performance before leaving his country in the wake of military dictatorship and the oppression of civil rights. Lights are strung throughout the audience area, there are artifacts and pictures on the wall, recalling the ancestors of those who have long since passed on. Afrobeat is piping in overhead, and slowly the band makes its way to the stage and suddenly the music is live and no longer canned.
The title role is the entire show. He carries the evening from start to finish on his shoulders, talking, singing, dancing and playing the saxophone. It’s little wonder that the role is split between two actors, Sahr Ngaujah (who originated the role off-Broadway) and Kevin Mambo (whom I saw and enjoyed).
Bill T. Jones’ choreography is some of the most impressive I’ve seen in recent seasons. The energy level and athleticism is unlikely to be forgotten. The book consists mostly of Fela telling us about himself. It gets a bit tedious, The majority of the evening is spent in monologues. Only Lillias White (who, equally impressive as Fela’s activist mother, blasts the roof off the theatre with an eleventh hour appearance) and the delicious Saycon Sengbloh have lines, and are clearly supporting parts. No one else in the ensemble has any lines, but given the nature of the choreography I doubt they’d have the breath to get out any words. But it’s more than just the words and the music. It’s more the unspoken energy and the impact the show can have on audiences. It’s not very often you see the tired businessman on his feet dancing without reservation. You’re more like to see this wave of energy at Fela! than even over at Hair.
Musical doesn’t seem quite the perfect word to describe Fela!, but it really is the most appropriate for the experience. I knew absolutely nothing about Fela Kuti going into the show, and made it a point to avoid research because I felt like going into the show knowing as little as possible. The result fascinated me, and I can tell you I am now in the possession of several Kuti albums and have read far much more about the activist/singer than I thought possible. Would I take in Fela! again? In a heart beat.
Yank! has been gestating off-off Broadway and in fringe circuits for several years. Written by the Zellnick brothers (Joe and David), the tuner is a throwback to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the Golden Age. I’ve seen some comparisons to South Pacific and while the parallels are obvious, structurally the show owes more to Oklahoma! right down to its eleventh hour dream ballet.
The musical is a love story between two soldiers from WWII who find themselves forced to keep their romance a secret. The show succeeds for the most part. It’s a fascinating look into a subculture of the Second World War that doesn’t get as much attention as other historical events. It’s mostly engaging with a tuneful score, though the company number numbers and pastiches are surprisingly far more memorable than the material sung by the leads. There are some aspects of the libretto that could use some ironing out. The show runs a bit too long, and the flashback device (the show starts with a contemporary kid finding a journal in a junk shop) doesn’t work. Also, some of the set-ups to certain musical numbers recall more Rodgers & Hart than Rodgers & Hammerstein. The dream ballet isn’t terrible, but it isn’t terribly exciting either and seems out of place in the eleven o’clock spot.
The cast is mostly excellent with Bobby Steggert especially memorable as Stu, the young and impressionable gay soldier. Fresh from his turn in Ragtime, Steggert is on a winning career path and it will be interesting to see where he ends up next. Ivan Hernandez is quite formidable as Mitch, the seemingly macho heterosexual with whom Stu falls in love. The ensemble is a sort of take-off of that Battleground cliche: different backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. (But did we need another homophobic, possibly racist redneck to wreak havoc? It would be more interesting if they set that up to be one of the more likable buddies who is placed in that situation).
The production’s greatest asset is actually its leading lady. Nancy Anderson embodies every single woman in the show, from Stu’s mother to a sympathetic lesbian Army officer. Anderson gets the chance to parade out in the best costumes (well, it is about the military…) shining in diegetic pastiche numbers that comment on the action. One of the funniest moments of the entire evening is her spot-on turn in a black and white WWII era film, a sort of operetta spin on So Proudly We Hail.
Jeffrey Denman’s tap-heavy choreography is clever (especially in “Click”), but for the most part feels repetitious, save for the aforementioned dream ballet. The show is moving on from the York Theatre Company and is now slated for a Broadway berth this fall. The show thrives on its intimacy and the smaller the house the better.
In the wake of the current DADT controversy, the creators have written what has turned out to be a timely musical. With some more work, they can make it timeless.