No single-evening Broadway show could fully encompass the extravagant, complex spectacle of the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Musical innovator, political dissident, mesmerizing showman, flagrant hedonist, spiritual maverick, messianic and almost masochistically bold truth-teller — that was part, if hardly the entire sum, of Fela. The Nigerian performer-composer’s impact on the psyche of his turbulent nation was as profound as his influence on contemporary world music.
But while the man’s complicated, at times inexplicable, character and tumultuous saga can’t be contained in the musical about him now at the Paramount Theatre, “Fela!” is still a boogieing, gut-wrenching wonder — and, as befits the title figure, a show unlike any other Broadway has produced in sound, structure or subject.
Inspired by an authorized Carlos Moore biography, director-choreographer Bill T. Jones and his co-writer Jim Lewis present the man, portrayed in an electrifying fashion by Adesola Osakalumi, (note that some nights Duain Richmond takes over the role) in his preferred element — performing at The Shrine, his Lagos nightclub.
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It is 1978. In the company of his posse of shimmying, shaking dancing “queens” (as he called his on- and offstage harem), an impressive squad of male dancers, and an invincible percussion and horn-driven band, Fela holds forth in all his fiercely seductive, pastel-pants-suited glory — leading the audience (us) in chants and singalongs and dancealongs, deconstructing the layered rhythms and lines of jazz, R&B, high-life pop and African tribal music that underpin his signature Afrobeat sound.
As punishment for his relentless criticism of his country’s military dictatorship in raplike tunes and public statements, the brutal Nigerian regime is plaguing Fela with multiple arrests, constant surveillance, and much, much worse.
International pressure from fellow pop stars and his own wily maneuvers have sprung Fela from jail and kept him alive. But in the crisis point the show theatrically exploits, Fela has had enough. He’s ready to pack up his entourage and emigrate, if the spirit of his formidable mother Funmilayo (the outstanding British soprano Melanie Marshall) agrees.
The show’s wraparound live music is thrilling (though finessing the vocal miking would be helpful), with arrangements of more than a dozen Fela numbers including his global, politically spiked hits “Zombie” and “Sorrow Tears and Blood.” And Jones’ Tony Award-winning dances exhilarate — as in the challenge number, where the superbly trained yet spontaneous hoofers square off with their best moves.
In the midst of all this, the well-born Fela provides a comic retelling of his musical education, and his radicalization at the behest of an American black power activist (Michelle Williams, whose vocals here are unpleasingly strident).
Fela also supplies some gritty details, in sardonic fashion, about the authorities’ constant but often inept hounding of him. (They can’t even bust the guy for igbo, or marijuana — though he brandishes big joints onstage.)
As Act 1 ends, “Fela!” has lost some steam. But the last act delivers a creatively administered jolt of shattering tragedy: the 1978 military attack on Fela’s communal compound, evoked in harrowing phantasmagorical fashion with film projections and feverish ritual dancing. It is followed by, in an otherworldly reunion, the slain Funmilayo’s aria “Rain,” an original tune for the score stunningly performed by Marshall.
“Fela!” closes with rollicking affirmation and recommitment, not sorrow. It doesn’t go into the additional 20 years of embattled activism, personal troubles and music (Fela recorded some 50 albums), or his battle with AIDS that ended his life in 1997.
Sinner or saint, or sinner-saint? This show doesn’t ask which the man was, and that’s fine for its purposes. Yet it leaves us unsurprised to learn that a million people attended Fela’s Nigerian funeral.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org