Review: Patti LaBelle in 'FELA!' on Broadway

Review: Patti LaBelle in 'FELA!' on Broadway

In my original review of Fela!

Published October 7, 2010

In my original review of Fela! on Broadway , I commented on how the woman next to me reacted to Lillias White 's Tony nominated performance.  White played Fela Kuti 's mother and in one of her vocally outstanding moments Miss Lady to the left shouted, "That's the African Patti LaBelle !" A couple months later it was announced that the legendary Patti LaBelle will play the mother of the late, great Fela Kuti, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti . As expected, there is no other mainstream singer who could tackle this vocal powerhouse of a role like the unstoppable Patti LaBelle. The Philly native not only brought the voice, but delivered the acting chops to play the Nigerian-born activist and mother.

On Tuesday night, I had a chance to see Fela! a second time, but with Patti LaBelle and Tony Award nominee Sahr Ngaujah .  In June, I saw the enormously gifted Kevin Mambo as Fela Kuti.  Equally as talented, it was clear after Ngaujah's first note why he has been universally praised for his performance. In the way of Mambo, the spirit of Fela entered right in his blood, bringing to life one of the most important international figures of the 20th century.

Commanding the stage on this particular night was no easy task. The audience was particularly stiff, as if they all had a dose of Valium. But, Ngaujah was not having it. Twenty minutes in, he woke the crowd up, roaring in the name of Fela for them to respond. By the end of the night, the audience was a whole new group of folks, transported to the Shrine night club in the seventies, which is where the show takes place.

Ngaujah's performance was much different than Mambo's. Not that he was better; there is no way to compare. Ngaujah had a different interpretation of Fela Kuti, which felt as authentic Mambo's. All praises should go to Bill T. Jones, who is being honored this year at the Kennedy Center Honors, and the creators of Fela! for managing to find two brilliant actors who could simultaneously capture the fever of Fela Kuti.

Being that Patti LaBelle is a stone-cold soul singer, one might wonder how she can handle the tight structure of Broadway.  Having seen the original "Lady Marmalade" in concert several times; she never performs a song the same way twice. The audience always gets something new. That said, at 64 years old, Patti has managed to reinvent herself again, delivering some of the best vocals in her over 50-year career.  Only in Fela! will you see an awesome mix of a soul icon with the story of a provocative and passionate activist.

After seeing Fela! with Miss Patti, I wondered what other popular names could guest star in the show. There is the role of Sandra Isadore, Fela's witty Black American girlfriend, brought to life by the strikingly beautiful Saycon Sengbloh . The Atlanta native fills the role with her sex appeal, voice and amazing chemistry with both Fela leads.  A few R&B divas who would do well in the role of Sandra -- some who are overdue for a stint on Broadway -- Erykah Badu , a slim and trim Jennifer Hudson , and, my number one choice, Lauryn Hill .  I know, I know - we all want an album first, but Miss Hill would be an effortless fit as Sandra Isadore.

Fela! was just as exciting, inspiring and liberating as the first time around. This is the type of show you could see many times over, proving that Fela! is truly the most original production on Broadway. If you are a lover of art, dance, music and soul, and have not seen Fela! , you are missing out on one of the most divine productions in the history of stage.

Fela! is playing until early 2011, Patti LaBelle runs through January 2nd. Click here to purchase tickets:

Fela! is presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

Follow Fela! on Twitter:

Written by Clay Cane


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