There’s a smoking hot new band in town that plays music so infectious and wonderful that you will literally get out of your seat to participate. Both the musical and the character of Fela! wouldn’t have it any other way.
Welcome to The Shrine (not the venue in Los Angeles), where Fela Kuti is performing what he says is his last concert. Fela is an activist who uses his music to fight for a free Africa. The officials in Lagos, Nigeria don’t like it one bit. So they use intimidation, arrests, and even murder to coerce Fela to go away.
As staged by Bill T. Jones, this show is more of a concert/performance art piece hybrid than it is a Broadway musical. In the first act Fela recounts his early days while performing songs from that period. The second act picks up the story but also veers into a dream sequence/hallucination that Fela has about being visited by his dead mother.
There are so many great reasons to see Fela! Sahr Ngaujah has only gotten stronger in this role since I first saw it in New York. His ability to adlib according to how the audience responds was terrific and the show lends itself to his doing so. The company is quite good. The choreography by Mr. Jones is amongst the best I’ve seen in a show since Contact. Each and every one of the dancers is stunning. And then there’s the music. Fela Kuti’s music, a hybrid of jazz, funk, Cuban and African beats (which became known as Afrobeat) inspires pure joy, even when tackling the issues of late ‘70s Africa.
I don’t expect a performer who sings and dances as well as Mr. Ngaujah does to also play the saxophone (as Fela did). But I do find it ironic that a white musician plays the sax behind him. Morgan Price plays a wicked horn. The entire band plays fiercely.
But there are negatives, too. There are multiple anachronistic references in the show to things like News Corp., AIG, Rodney King, News of the World, and more. It’s as if Mr. Jones didn’t think we as an audience could find contemporary parallels in this story without his pointing them out.
The show never addresses the fact that Fela dies of AIDS, which he claimed was a white man’s disease. In the “Bring Your Own Coffin” sequence I’m surprised Mr. Jones didn’t have a coffin with AIDS on it to at least make some reference to health issues that impacted him, Africa, and the world.
Lastly, if you are a regular user of hearing devices during the show, you won’t need them for Fela! If, however, you don’t regularly use them, you might find them necessary after seeing Fela! The sound is so loud, particularly in the second act, that while my feet were still dancing after the show, they were moving to the pounding in my head.
If The Lion King is a Disney-version of Africa and African music, Fela! is absolutely the real thing. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything else like it.
Photograph by Tristram Kenton