Broadway Musicals

This review aired on KBAQ February 8, 2010


“FELA,” Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th Street, New York
“MEMPHIS,” Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th Street, New York
“A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,” Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street, New York
“FINIAN’S RAINBOW,” St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, New York
“RAGTIME,” Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, New York

There were surprises in the five Broadway musicals I saw last month.

The biggest new Broadway show, “Fela,” introduces Afro-Beat to the musical theater. Based on Nigerian rebel Fela Kuti, the musical incorporates his creative music and dances crafted before his 1997 death and featured in his Lagos nightclub where he pushed his hate of the corrupt Nigerian government.

“Fela” looks and sounds like no other musical but it drags as his work, recreated by director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, gets repetitious as the formulas, rituals, and sounds grow monotonous and the authors fail to make his story inspiring.

Tracing Kuti’s life provides insight into history few know about vividly. That the Nigerian government destroyed Kuti’s compound, hurt his supporters, and killed his worshiped mother, shocks. Playing Fela, Sahr Ngaujah works so hard to make audiences like him that his performance is unpleasant to watch. While “Fela” introduces a new culture to musical theater, the show’s creators do Kuti a disservice by making his creative work seem one note and not making his life as remarkable as it appears.

Set in the 1950s, “Memphis” chronicles the awkward transition of black music being sung by white entertainers without proper credit. The show also broaches the then revolutionary idea of biracial romance. It’s a joy to watch, the new music has the feel and beat of the originals, and an excellent cast and stirring staging turn “Memphis” into an entertaining delight.

“A Little Night Music” is the other talked about Broadway show because Trevor Nunn’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s lovely show marks the Broadway debut of movie star Catherine Zeta-Jones. She brings a luminous stage personality and charming singing to the part of fading stage actress Desiree Armfeldt. The show also returns Angela Lansbury to musicals. She sparkles with vigor and glamour as Desiree’s shrewdly clever mother but these two outstanding stars can’t make this plodding revival vital. A friend described “A Little Night Music” with caustic brilliance by saying “it should have been a light soufflé, but instead was a leaden omelet.” Nunn’s staging drags on for nearly three hours as the rest of the skimpy cast and miniscule orchestra bring the show to a sputtering death without giving Sondheim’s all-waltz score the light effervescence it demands.

The “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Ragtime” revivals have closed at large losses. “Rainbow” was a beautifully sung and brightly staged delight that conquered the show’s antiquated treatment of race relations and showcased the score’s all-hit songs. “Ragtime” took a simpler look at this complex show that traces three families through America’s growth during the infusion of immigrants in the early 20th century. It focused on the characters but the tedious staging became repetitious. This stark treatment didn’t work as well as the stunningly conceived and brilliantly cast original. For tickets to “Fela,” “Memphis,” and “A Little Night Music,” call Telecharge at 212-239-6200. “Finian’s Rainbow” closed on January 17. “Ragtime” closed on January 10.