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Broadway brings the heat


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Lance Guest sounds almost spookily like Johnny Cash, with long low notes to die for, best sampled on "I Walk the Line" and "Sixteen Tons." Robert Britton Lyons has the liberty of doing almost anything and convincing almost anybody that he's Carl Perkins in the flesh, but he picks guitar handsomely all evening long, solos capably on "Matchbox," and aims most of his resentment at the upstart Jerry Lee — though it was Elvis who stole his "Blue Suede Shoes."

I may be shortchanging Quartet with my rating because understudy Erik Hayden took over for Eddie Clendening on the night Sue and I attended. Or maybe not: I had a peep at Clendening on the Tony Awards broadcast and didn't exactly go insane. Hayden had The King's moves down pat, indicative of meticulous stage direction from Eric Schaeffer, and if he doesn't have Elvis's high notes or his silky midrange, his "That's All Right" was right in the pocket.

Sue, a reliable barometer in these matters, was as aglow as I've seen her since we exited Jersey Boys a year ago. All isn't testosterone, however. The writers have contrived to insert Elizabeth Stanley into the plot as Dyanne. Stanley serves as a fine adornment for Elvis as he drops by on ole pal Sam outfitted with a lady friend, sings "Fever" less coolly than Peggy Lee, and is a fitting object for Jerry Lee to drool over. Hunter Foster (Sutton's brother) isn't nearly as Southern in his eccentricity as Sam Phillips as Chad Kimball is as the hero of Memphis, but we take to him as his bittersweet fate earns our sympathy.

Fela! (***) — By all rights, the exotic freedom-loving core of this show should make it tower over the likes of Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet. For here we have the music and crusading spirit of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian inventor of Afro-beat and the rebellious founder of the MOP (Movement of the People) party in opposition to the corrupt military government of his homeland. At the peak of his popularity and notoriety in 1977, his Kalakuta compound was attacked by 1,000 Nigerian soldiers and his 82-year-old mother was thrown from an upstairs window to her death.

But director/choreographer Bill T. Jones wasn't sold on the idea of having even a flimsy book, a la Million Dollar Quartet, to tell the story of his hero, let alone a fully fleshed-out storyline like we get in Memphis. Instead, Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis take us to Fela's final concert at his Shrine Club in Lagos, six months after his mother's death. While the walls of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre are festooned with simulations, artifacts, and AV projections that evoke the tumultuous ambiance of Nigeria's capital, emphasis onstage is shifted radically to recreating the experience of attending one of Fela's charismatically defiant late-night concerts.

No wonder, then, that audience reaction will be wildly polarized. If you're intrigued by a fine Afro-beat concert lightly spiced by hints of a stirring saga of brave activism — and some confused wisps of story that you'll need to research later — Fela! may indeed strike you as excitingly new. On the other hand, if you were looking for something more conventional in a musical — like a linear story — you might be disappointed by Fela! in the wake of all the rabid enthusiasm it has aroused, and if Afro-beat doesn't grab your fancy, you might walk out.

I'm convinced that the raid on the Kalakuta compound would have made an unforgettable Act 1 finale, with the comeback concert at the Shrine serving as a life-affirming climax to Act 2. Yes, that first act curtain would have exposed Lewis and Jones to Fela on the Roof quips, but the ultimate product would have packed more muscle and protein.

Taken for what it is, Fela! is a rather colorful entertainment, enlivened by striking costumes and rousing dance. We saw Kevin Mambo in the title role, a fine handsome actor who makes Fela something of a black Elvis in his eye-popping jumpsuits, but I suspect that Sahr Ngaujah delivers a more primal experience. So I counted myself somewhat unlucky since even Stephen Hendel, one of the show's producers, couldn't predict which of his two stars I would see when I spoke to him a week earlier.


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