There is enough visceral energy and musical excitement offered in the new musical bio “Fela!” to sustain three musicals. The politically active life and musical legacy of Nigerian-born musician-composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938 – 1997) are the catalysts for a show that is part concert, part dance, and part dramatic narrative. The various parts have been directed, choreographed, and conceived (in part) with a stunning excess of artistic imagination by the renowned Tony-Award winning choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Many of you know the laudable work of Jones — Tony Award for “Spring Awakening” and the choreographer of more than 100 works for his dance company. Therefore, it will come as no surprise to hear about a music and movement-propelled show as this one that is filled to overflowing with his incomparably original and resourceful dance vocabulary. At times frenetic and furious, at other times earthy and ethereal, all the dancing vibrates with life and daring.
Although Jones’s gift as a dance modernist is visible, it is his instinctual grasp of Fela’s unique music, a fusion of African rhythms, jazz, and funky harmonics that makes the dances so exciting. Fela’s ground-breaking songs are known for being provocative and appealing, but here they are used to great effect to engrave their brutal honesty of purpose directly into the gripping, often heartbreaking, story he relates and in which he actively participates.
The setting for the show is the Shrine (his space in Lagos, Nigeria.) It is 1977 and Fela, along with his singers and dancers, have gathered for the funeral services of his 78-year-old mother, Funmilayo (Abena Koomson), a world-recognized feminist leader. “We are going to party tonight,” Fela shouts. A versatile, talented, and personable performer, Sahr Ngaujah is as convincing as he appears committed to portraying Fela, a man born into the indigenous Nigerian elite, a human rights activist who dedicated his life to opposing the tyrannical military rule of his country. His death in 1997 resulted from complications from AIDS.
For him, the funeral will be a celebration of Funmilayo’s life. Her spirit returns at key moments to serve as inspiration and support (“Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”) to her son, whose political leanings have been hugely influenced by Sandra Isidore (Sparlha Swa), a beautiful woman he met while in America. She is the one who introduces him to the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver and who ignites in him the spark of political and social rebellion.
Although Ngaujah has the task of being center stage (in the glow of Robert Wierzel’s dazzling lighting) for most of the show, even showing off his virtuosity with the saxophone and trumpet, he rivets us with the story of his family: a father, a Christian schoolmaster, minister and master pianist; his mother; and his brother who became president of the Nigerian Medical Association in 1958. The family had hopes that Fela would also go into the medical profession. But he dropped out of his studies and enrolled at Trinity College’s School of Music. Influenced by James Brown and Frank Sinatra, he returned to Nigeria, where he began to find his own authenticity by incorporating elements of traditional Yoruba and high life into his music.
There are a number of chilling and despairing moments within the narrative that include video and projections of the military government’s brutality. His mother would die from injuries sustained after being thrown from a second story window by the police during a raid. But the stage is ruled by Fela and an ensemble of stunningly beautiful dancers. Extravagantly costumed by designer Marina Draghini (who also designed the impressionistic setting), the dancers, some close enough to touch, bring into sharp relief the sexy, sensuous, and life-affirming pulse of Nigeria. Ismael Kouyate is terrific as an African chanter and also briefly portraying James Brown. Calvin C. Booker has a number of opportunities to shake up the stage with some ferocious tap dancing.
There is an earnest passion that drives the show as it balances Fela’s socio-political calling with his career as a musician and composer and as the leader of Africa 70, a band that would become a huge success in West Africa and beyond.
My background knowledge of the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (although almost 70 albums of his work are now available) is as limited as my awareness of the extraordinarily talented Ngaujah, who portrays the titular character. What a revelation he is. I always said my best education has been going to the theater. Even before the show begins we are immersed in the rhythmic, pulsating sounds of Antibalas, the on-stage big band (10 musicians) that vamp for a full 20 minutes before the start of the show. It is a Brooklyn-based band credited with introducing Afrobeat to a new generation. But here it is laudable for the concerted non-stop virtuosity displayed during the show. The Afro beat goes on. The show contains 28 songs; many, including the international hit “Zombie,” are insightful and trenchant enough to serve as the show’s thematic threads.
The book is a collaborative effort by Jim Lewis (who also contributed some lyrics) and Jones. If it isn’t particularly strong on intimate or confrontational scenes, it accomplishes its task of following the revelatory journey of a revolutionary man who ran for president and lost, was brutalized and arrested more than two hundred times, and ended up producing an incredible body of unique musical works. The show is about two and one half hours, but be prepared to stay longer and party, as the cast is not eager to leave the stage. At the performance I saw, Jones came up on stage and joined the dancers to a roar of approval. Deservedly! ****
“Fela!,” through Sunday, September 21, 37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street. $76.25. 212-560-8912.