The lethargic pace of a sweltering summer in the city can is being shaken by a burst of sizzling energy from Fela! the national touring production of the Tony Award winning musical that is playing a very limited run on Broadway this summer at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. First produced Off-Broadway in 2008 and then transferred to Broadway in 2009, this bio-musical about activist and musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is an exciting and energizing production that infuses a history lesson into one of the most entertaining evenings on Broadway.
Starring Sahr Ngaujah as the titular character, Fela! is staged as a concert at the Shrine, the nightclub in Lagos where Fela performed his revolutionary music and proclaimed himself president of his own republic. The son of an Anglican minister and Funmilayo, a social reformer who eventually became Nigeria’s leading female activist, Fela not surprisingly felt the need to leave his own mark on the world, and he did so through the music Afrobeat, a sound that combined tribal rhythms with the music he heard while living in London and the United States.
Fela became a recording star and political activist who caused great uneasiness in the Nigerian military dictatorship when he declared his intention to run for Nigeria’s presidency, representing his own Movement of the People party. He then declared the compound where he lived with his 27 wives (all of whom he married during one ceremony) its own republic – a move that led to great achievement but also tragedy later in his life.
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who also co-authored the book with Jim Lewis, Fela! is presented as the musician’s last concert because he plans to depart from Nigeria following a government raid on his compound that injured many of his followers and killed his mother (whose spirit urges him to stay in the country and continue working against the corrupt government). Despite this tragedy, the mood of the show is exciting and exuberant, due to the infectious music performed by his onstage band, and Ngaujah’s assured, cocky, and extremely sexy performance as Fela.
Staged on Draghici’s set, with lighting by Robert Wierzel, video design by Peter Nigrini and sound by Robert Kaplowitz, Fela is dressed in an Elvis-like jumpsuit (the bright, original costumes are by Marina Draghici) and serves as the emcee of the evening. Lithe and limber, with seemingly endless energy, he shares the story of his life, complete with photo and video montages of the climate in Nigeria as well as the actual Fela, as well as a company of dancers who breathe even more life and energy into this already ecstatic show.
While describing the types of music he was inspired by and dance moves he created, Ngaujah commands the entire audience to to stand and dance along with him. Following this tutorial, the company performs the song “Originality,” where they are each permitted to dance individually. Another outstanding song is “Zombie,” where Fela and his company depict the public’s robotic following of the government. Jones’ choreography is athletic, exuberant and original, as well as extremely sensual and sexy.
Each member of the ensemble is excellent, with tap artist Gelan Lambert performing some eye-popping moves as well as Paulette Ivory as Sandra, Fela’s love interest who first introduces him to Marxism and the black power movement. She and Funmilayo both sing beautifully and witnessing Fela’s lust for and worship of the two women respectively is vital to his character registering as more than a power-hungry egomaniac. It is interesting to think that a man who married 27 women in one ceremony had such singular reverence for his mother.
It is these complexities that make this show so interesting, even if at times it’s difficult to follow. (The sequence of Fela witnessing the afterlife is a sensory overload of images and sound, and, while stimulating and appealing, also very confusing.) The contradictions and complications of this man are what make him such an interesting topic for a show and serve as the driving force as well as the energy and enthusiasm that pour off the stage, into the audience and, hopefully, into the slow, sultry summer streets as well.