The show: “Fela!”
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: I was going to write a standard blog-style review of "Fela" which I saw Friday night but since the run was so short -- it ended today -- I decided to instead expand on a few thoughts I had after the show, which was not so much per se about the musical -- which was vibrant, soul-stirring and -- in the second act -- in need of a book writer with sharper know-how.
No, I was struck by the back-to-back shows I saw in Connecticut this week and their choreographer-directors.
On Thursday at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts at UConn in Storrs I caught the one-night stand of the touring dance-theater piece "Angel Reapers," created by Martha Clarke and writer Alfred Uhry (in a venue that was far too large for the piece that felt too short). "Fela!" was choreographed and directed (and co-conceived with producer Stephen Hendel) by Bill T. Jones in a lovely setting. The piece felt longer than it should given it dynamic first act. The second act -- especially the endless spiritual-journey segment -- needed sharper shaping. Still, both works were quite wonderful in their own special and non-conformist ways and the backgrounds of their creators tells us why.
Both Clarke and Jones started their careers in the modern dance world; Clarke with Pilobolus and Crowsnest and then later working with other companies, eventually creating fro the '80s on her own unique creations that merge dance, theater, music and visual arts. Jones, of course, had and still has his Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company and only relatively recently moved to the musical theater world on Broadway with "Spring Awakening" (earning him a Tony Award) and then "Fela!" (earning him another).
In Broadway musical's golden age choreographers, such as Agnes de Mille and Oona White, made dance a vital part of shows. They were followed by the emergence of the choreographer-director and its quartet of superheroes: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune. But death of three of them and a professional retreat by the other stopped the flow of great new works. AIDS in the '80s and '90s also wiped out a generation of artists who would no doubt have emerged and done great work.
While there are still many talented director-choreographers (Susan Stroman leading the pack by far), there is not much depth of field -- at least in terms of pushing the art form in new and exciting directions.
That is why Jones' contributions to the musical stage so far is exciting. He is one of the most innovative artists there is working in theater (and dance, too; his own company keeps a full schedule creating dynamic work there). Perhaps it is because he came from a different artistic world that he didn't feel bound by the old template about how to stage a musical.
Though Clarke staged a musical "Hans Christian Anderson" at ACT in San Francisco in 2000, Clarke hasn't had her full musical shot yet. (Opera gigs are more plentiful.) Judging from her striking images, movement and heart in "Angel Reapers" -- I can't wait to see what she may do with a new -- or classic -- musical theater piece.
Coming from another arts discipline gives these new choreographer-directors a fresh perspective and their maverick spirit (the dance world ain't a bed of roses either) and history of being outsiders, places them a perfect position to shake up the system and push it in new directions.
But while you don't have to do a musical by the book but you sure as hell have to have a book, i.e. script that provides a solid basis in the story telling. It doesn't have to be literal -- or even linear -- but the tale must be clearly laid out-yet rich, the characters must be sharply drawn yet nuanced and the words must be carefully chosen as it take an audience on a journey to whatever exciting new place these theatrical wizards invent.
Did you see "Fela!" or "Angel Reapers: What did you think? Share your thoughts -- or a review -- on Frank’s blog at www.courant.com/curtain. Catch Frank talking about theater every Friday at FOX/CT’s Morning show during the 9 a.m. hour. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz