NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The increasing adventurousness of Broadway producers is well demonstrated by “Fela!,” the high-powered musical about legendary African performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. A smash hit Off Broadway, this wildly entertaining show will need all the help it can get to attract mainstream audiences, though the late addition of producers Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith will surely help.
Directed, choreographed, co-written and partially conceived by modern dance pioneer Bill T. Jones (Tony winner for “Spring Awakening”), “Fela!” relates the story of the famed composer-performer and political activist who revolutionized African music in the 1970s while at the same time earning the ire of the repressive military government of his native Nigeria.
The show, as much a concert as a conventional book musical, is set in 1978 at Fela’s final concert at the Shrine, his famous Lagos nightclub (the theater has been transformed in elaborate fashion). In the course of the evening, Fela — dynamically played by Sahr Ngaujah in a star-making performance — delivers pulsating renditions of many of his Afrobeat hits (in necessarily truncated form). The show may dwell at length on his political travails — he was arrested on numerous occasions and was imprisoned, and his elderly mother died from injuries sustained when she was thrown out of a window by government forces raiding his compound — but it is a mostly joyous affair that depicts the hugely influential musician in all his hedonistic glory.
Ngauhah — onstage for nearly every minute of the 2 1/2-hour show — displays endless reserves of charisma, sex appeal and musical talent, making his stage reincarnation of a genuine superstar, always a difficult task, more than credible. (Kevin Mambo plays the role at matinee performances.) This is a performance that will surely come into play come awards season.
The show’s raison d’etre is the music, ferociously performed by Antibalas, a Brooklyn-based band. While most of it will be new to all but African music enthusiasts, some of the tunes, such as the international hit “Zombie,” will be familiar to clubgoers.
Jones, here making his stage directorial debut, has provided a seamlessly fluid production. Not surprisingly, his choreography, including some amusing audience participation on the sexually tinged “Originality/Yellow Fever,” is outstanding and beautifully performed by the hard-working, sexy ensemble. The show has been tightened since its overly long Off Broadway debut, with the addition of Tony winner Lillias White (“The Life”) as Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, proving another plus.