Fela Anikulapo-Kuti seems an unlikely subject for the star of a Broadway musical. He was a most scrappy fella, internationally famed Nigerian musician and combative political activist.
Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones has shaped a stirring production around Kuti’s outsize personality and key events from his rebellious, unconventional life, set to the percussive Afrobeat music Kuti invented. The result is “Fela!,” a terrific dance party of a musical, an exuberant celebration that also drives home a spirited message of human resilience.
Jones co-wrote the book with Jim Lewis and directs the play, which he co-conceived with Stephen Hendel and Lewis, like a kaleidoscope of sight and sounds and motion.
The Eugene O’Neil Theatre has been transformed into the interior of Fela Kuti’s Lagos nightclub, “The Shrine,” for a 1977 concert, when Fela has decided to leave Nigeria to protect his family. The audience is immediately immersed in the underground atmosphere, as the set and projections extend out into the theater. The performers frequently dance through the aisles, filling the theater the same way the lively music does.
An extremely talented ensemble of attractive, limber, athletic dancers are in nonstop motion throughout the play. The infectious onstage band, heavy on horns and drums and conducted by Aaron Johnson, includes members of Antibalas, a group that began studying Fela Kuti’s music a decade ago.
Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role of Fela Kuti in the successful off-Broadway production last year at Arts 37, now shares the rigorous role with Kevin Mambo.
Onstage nearly the entire show, Ngaujah gives a beguiling, swaggering, sweaty portrayal of Fela, conveying the hedonistic attitude of a popular musician who constantly speaks out against the various dictatorial regimes in his country. His more provocative songs include “Zombie,” which portrays the military rulers as mindless robots, and “Pipeline/ITT, (International Theief Thief,”) which rails against the looting of his country’s oil and diamond wealth by multinational corporations.
Fela’s persistent messages of human rights, anti-corruption and individual empowerment are conveyed through his direct, often-satirical lyrics and the monologue of this nightclub act. Humor alternates with serious matters, though, as the audience is requested at one point to get up and follow Fela’s directions to really move their hips (“The Clock.”)
Fela describes his early musical influences in an amusing number called “BID (Breaking It Down),” that includes Frank Sinatra, James Brown, his own grandfather’s spiritual hymns, jazz fusion and Yoruban chants.
Video projections of headlines and old newsreels accompany Nguajah’s performance, showing that Fela Kuti was often arrested and beaten, alongside news of his increasing popular acclaim. A seminal indecent in which vicious police raided his compound, brutalized his family and staff, and fatally injured his mother, is depicted in the production as a turning point in Fela’s life, causing him to doubt his life’s passion for justice.
To soften the underlying violence and Kuti’s complicated, raunchy, chauvinistic edges for a Broadway audience, two real women from Kuti’s life are given expanded roles in the musical. The character Fela also seeks guidance from his deceased mother and from African spirits.
Saycon Sengbloh plays Sandra Isadore, an African-American woman who introduces Fela to Black Power ideals when his early travels take him to Los Angeles. In the musical, this leads Fela to use his music and his lifestyle to promote his African roots.
Lillias White portrays his pioneering feminist mother, Funmilayo Anikuapo-Kuti. A revered human-rights activist in her country, Funmilayo is presented as a saint, with a halo that lights up around her portrait whenever Fela speaks to her. White beautifully performs several powerful ballads, including “Trouble Sleep” and a new number written for the show, called “Rain,” in which Fela’s martyred mother appears in a dream and inspires him to continue to fight injustice.
Colorful costumes and the amazing set, both designed by Marina Draghici, enhance the party atmosphere, particularly in a riveting, surreal dream sequence when Fela travels through the spirit world. Draghici’s recreation of The Shrine includes Nigerian folk-art and political graffiti from the 1960s and ‘70s. Robert Wierzel’s magical lighting, Robert Kaplowitz’s sound and Peter Nigrini’s projection design complete the feeling of being in a hip, slightly dangerous nightclub.
The political messages do not detract from the terrific work by the cast, the overriding musicality and outstandingly sensuous dance performances.
“Fela!” is a unique Broadway experience that leaves the audience on their feet and wanting more.
There should be dancing in the streets. When you leave the Eugene O’Neill Theater after a performance of “Fela!,” it comes as a shock that the people on the sidewalks are merely walking. Why aren’t they gyrating, swaying, vibrating, in thrall to the force field that you have been living in so ecstatically for the past couple of hours?
The hot (and seriously cool) energy that comes from the musical gospel preached by the title character of “Fela!,” which opened on Monday night, feels as if it could stretch easily to the borders of Manhattan and then across a river or two. Anyone who worried that Bill T. Jones’s singular, sensational show might lose its mojo in transferring to Broadway can relax.
True, this kinetic portrait of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary of song, has taken on some starry producers — including Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — and shed 15 or 20 minutes since it was staged Off Broadway last year.
But it has also acquired greater focus, clarity and intensity. In a season dominated by musical retreads and revivals, “Fela!,” which stars the excellent Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo (alternating in the title role), throbs with a stirring newness that is not to be confused with novelty.
For there has never been anything on Broadway like this production, which traces the life of Fela Kuti (1938-97) through the prism of the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub where Fela (pronounced FAY-lah) reigned not only as a performer of his incendiary songs (which make up most of the score) but also as the self-proclaimed president of his own autonomous republic.
As brought to the stage by Mr. Jones — the show’s venturesome choreographer, director and, with Jim Lewis, its book writer — “Fela!” doesn’t so much tell a story as soak an audience to and through the skin with the musical style and sensibility practiced by its leading man. That style is Afrobeat, an amalgam of diverse cultural elements that will be parsed and reassembled during the show by its performers and the wonderful Antibalas, an Afrobeat band out of Brooklyn.
Irresistible music is always more than its individual parts, though. The sum of them here captures the spirit of rebellion — against repression, inhibition and conformity — that dwells within all of us, but which most of us have repressed by early middle age. It has been surfacing in wave after wave of jazz, funk and rock ’n’ roll since the 1920s. And it has been translated into smooth Broadway-ese over the years, in shows about restless youth like “Hair,” “West Side Story” and even “Bye Bye Birdie,” all currently in revival.
The form that spirit took in popular music in Nigeria in the 1970s, though, was more visceral and more far-reaching than anything Broadway gave birth to. That was when Fela was at the height of his popularity as a recording star and political agitator who understandably frightened the Nigerian military dictatorship. It wasn’t just what Fela said about a country broken by corruption and oppression. It was how his music said it.
The astonishment of “Fela!” is that it transmits the force of this musical language in ways that let us feel what it came out of and how it traveled through a population. When you arrive at the theater, just look at the stage — transformed into an eye-awakening, graffiti-decorated shrine by Marina Draghici (who also did the celebratory costumes) — and you’ll see the source of that pulse: it’s in the bodacious, miniskirted hips that can be tantalizingly glimpsed swaying in and out from the stage’s wings.
As choreographed by Mr. Jones, an eminence of contemporary dance who won a Tony for his work on “Spring Awakening,” “Fela!” leads with its hips. Its star, who makes his entrance through the aisles amid a human locomotive of shoulder-rolling men, identifies that pelvic motion as “nyansh,” what you hear — and feel — in the bass.
Nyansh is Afrobeat’s foundation, over which are layered elements explained in a number called “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” which traces the musical education of Fela from his youth in Lagos (where highlife jazz dominated) to his student days in London (where he listened to John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra). Somewhere along the way, the sounds of Chano Pozo and James Brown entered his aural landscape, and Fela heard a synthesis that he believed would change not only his life but all of Africa.
The show covers a lot of biographical territory, ranging through the United States as well as Africa, though with far less strain than in its Off Broadway incarnation. Set in the Shrine on the eve of Fela’s planned departure from Nigeria, months after a violent government raid on his compound that left many of his followers wounded and his beloved mother dead, the production shifts between past and present via an assortment of sophisticated theatrical tools (including magical lighting by Robert Wierzel and video design by Peter Nigrini, with top-grade wrap-around sound by Robert Kaplowitz).
But it’s the music and the movement that tell us most about the man and his world. “Fela!” never stops dancing, and Mr. Jones uses his ravishing ensemble to evoke everything from joyous sensuality to the kind of governmental oppression that turns people into zombies. Both actors portraying the pot-smoking, sax-tooting Fela lead their ensemble, which winds up including us, with charismatic authority.
Mr. Ngaujah, who originated the role and now appears in it five times a week, has an insolent, instinctive majesty that feels utterly organic, as if it’s been conjured by the music itself. Mr. Mambo wears his pain, his rage and his humor closer to the surface; he’s a slightly less compelling musical presence, but a more lucid storyteller.
As commanding as both these men are — and as spirited as the male dancers (including the brilliant, sui-generis tap artist Gelan Lambert) are — it’s the women who ultimately rule this universe. Saycon Sengbloh shimmers as the seductress who introduces Fela to Marx and the American black-power movement.
And Lillias White plays Funmilayo, the government-baiting feminist who was Fela’s mother and whose ancestral spirit haunts her son. As anyone who saw her in “The Life” knows, Ms. White’s voice can penetrate the heavens, so it seems perfectly plausible that Funmilayo could become the goddess that Fela visits in the afterlife, in the show’s most elaborately conceived and fantastical sequence.
But the heart, soul and pelvis of “Fela!” are located most completely in the phalanx of female dancers (I counted nine, but they feel legion) who stand in for the 27 women Fela married. Fela called these beauties his queens, and they are hardly your traditional chorus line.
Imperial and exquisitely self-contained, these women never sell themselves with the smiling avidity you’re used to from Broadway dancers. They don’t need to. Their concentrated magnetism draws you right to their sides, whether they’re parading among the audience or wriggling onstage.
By the end of this transporting production, you feel you have been dancing with the stars. And I mean astral bodies, not dime-a-dozen celebrities.
It may be worth nothing that this decade's most exhilarating new Broadway musicals were developed, at least in part, by creative carpetbaggers.
Like Spring Awakening in 2006 and Passing Strange in 2008, Fela! (* * * 1/2 out of four), which opened Monday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, owes its electrifying score to artists who built their careers outside musical theater. In this case, they're the lavishly gifted Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died from AIDS complications in 1997, and the Brooklyn-based group Antibalas, among his numerous disciples.
If you're not familiar with those names – the show's biggest stars are producers Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith– you will be by the time Tony Award nominations are announced. You'll also be hearing a lot about Bill T. Jones, Fela!'s director, choreographer and co-librettist. Already a Tony winner for Awakening, Jones works with a different musical vocabulary here: Afrobeat, which Kuti pioneered by blending sounds of his native continent with jazz and R&B he absorbed while traveling.
Fela!'s choreography is, as a result, livelier and more sophisticated. Executed by a dynamic cast, it's the perfect companion to Kuti's supple tunes and pulsing grooves, served with virtuosity by a band conducted by Antibalas' Aaron Johnson. Delivering exuberant storytelling through song and dance, Fela! achieves something closer to the essence of great musicals than many more conventional shows have of late.
Fela! is set in the late '70s in Lagos, then Nigeria's capital, at the Shrine, Kuti's nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he assailed both as a lyricist and an activist. The title character – alternately played by Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah because of the physical and emotional intensity of the role – is offering one final show before leaving his country for greater freedom and richer opportunities.
Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis use flashbacks and creative license to depict Kuti's heroism and hedonism. At a preview, Ngaujah wittily relayed his fondness for women and marijuana, and engaged the audience with a rock star's feral charisma.
The violence and turmoil that informed Kuti's art and life also are reflected. Kuti's late mother, played by Lillias White, appears in dreamy, spooky sequences that verge on histrionic in trying to capture the drama and majesty of African spirituality.
But that's a minor quibble. Fela! earns its exclamation point, joyfully and relentlessly.
Will the average Broadway matinee lady be comfortable participating in a practical demonstration of how to tell time with her ass? That's exactly what takes place in "The Clock," a particularly frisky sequence of "Fela!" in which the entire audience is on its feet learning from the able-bodied dance corps what Swiss-movement booty work is all about. And it's just one of countless ways in which Bill T. Jones' wildly loose-limbed journey into the throbbing heart of Afrobeat breaks bold new ground in musical theater.
Music icons have proved hard to capture in Broadway shows of the past few years. "Jersey Boys" did it for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons by threading performance numbers through a robust biographical narrative. Working with the music of Johnny Cash and John Lennon, respectively, "Ring of Fire" and "Lennon" tried a more interpretive approach that failed.
Director-choreographer Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis sample elements from both schools, but more essentially, they take another path altogether. Rather than a straight-up chronicle of the life of late Nigerian musician-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the show is about vividly conjuring a specific atmosphere. It provides a full-immersion experiential ride through the artist's heady, hermetic world, from his formation as a musician to his spiritual and political awakening.
Crafting a show that's more impressionistic than informational has its limitations as well as rewards. Despite minor tightening since it premiered Off Broadway last fall, "Fela!" remains undershaped; at times, it's repetitive and self-indulgent.
It leans more toward celebratory tribute than warts-and-all portrait. However, Fela's egomania and retrograde attitude toward women, which ran contrary to the example of his feminist mother, are by no means glossed over. He was more galvanizing rabble-rouser than profound political thinker, and the show harnesses the anger of his anti-colonialist, anti-corruption, anti-military-rule stance without trying to articulate that rage.
More perplexing is the choice to withhold the information that Fela died of AIDS-related causes, despite a powerful agitprop finale in which "Stop HIV" and "Act up. Fight AIDS" are among the wide-reaching political slogans slapped over mock coffins.
But such reservations are secondary to the tremendous raw authenticity and electric energy of this dance-heavy bio-musical, and the dangerous sensuality of Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Kevin Mambo), who inhabits the title role with a cool command that never loses intensity.
The show is loosely structured as a 1978 farewell concert from the Shrine, the performance space in the Lagos compound Fela declared an independent republic, where he lived with his extended entourage of musicians and the 27 wives he called his "queens." And regal they are, as represented by a band of fierce, gyrating women whose lithe bodies are hard-wired directly into the rhythms of the music and wrapped in designer Marina Draghici's skimpy but extravagant glamazon creations.
Draghici's vivid environmental setting lines the walls with corrugated iron, plastered in graffiti, posters, ancestral tributes, African totems and masks, all of it spilling out into the auditorium along with Robert Wierzel's trippy, kaleidoscopic lighting. As much as the hit Broadway revival of "Hair," this is a show that defies an audience to remain outside the experience, particularly as the dancers and musicians shimmy and weave through the aisles.
The complex layering of the Afrobeat sound is broken down and then reassembled in the opening stretch as Fela, his muscled body packed into a baby-blue Elvis jumpsuit, traces the multifold influences he absorbed at home and during his time in London and the U.S.: Yoruban chants, Highlife horns, James Brown-style funk, freeform American jazz, Cuban big bands, primal bass and a touch of Sinatra smoothness. Those sounds are blasted out onstage, starting even before the show, by a killer band that includes members of Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, led by trombonist Aaron Johnson.
Jones offers an explosive visual extension of the music in dance that welds African traditions to the choreographer's own modern, iconoclastic language. Onto that fusion, he grafts arresting flourishes such as convulsive tap (courtesy of Gelan Lambert), goose-stepping to convey military oppression and a supernatural ballet as Fela visits the spirit world to commune with his mother, Funmilayo (Lillias White).
That character appears intermittently, a presence as vital to Fela in death as in life. White's "Trouble Sleep" is the show's most haunting number, while the new second-act song, "Rain," effectively summons the weeping heavens with a hurt Broadway growl.
The show's mosaic of semi-narrative touches on Fela's formative relationship with African-American Black Power radical Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh); his constant persecution by police, including a hilarious episode in which he swallows an evidentiary dope stash; and his self-mythologizing dream of starring in a "Black President" movie, the humor of which resonates in fresh ways since the election of Obama.
Through it all, Ngaujah's charismatic Fela remains imperious, whether he's irreverent, indignant or bereft, toking on a cigar-sized spliff while appreciatively sizing up his shapely queens or staring down an authority figure and igniting his followers with rebellious fervor. It's a titanic performance.
The show's climax, played out to "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," is the brutal 1978 raid by Nigerian soldiers on the compound. The tragic events of that day -- rape, degradation, sadistic violence -- unfold as a silent litany, with Wierzel's lights isolating each figure as accounts of their suffering are projected in text.
In the solemn protest that follows, a procession snakes through the theater aisles, spreading that spirit of shared pain and unbroken endurance usually only summoned at memorial rallies. Such political passion is not exactly commonplace in a Broadway musical, but it's one of many ways in which "Fela!" breaks the mold.