Four years ago, Bill T. Jones’ dance musical Fela!, an absolutely explosive tribute to Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, opened Off-Broadway and quickly caught on with theatergoers and even some celebrities.
It eventually moved to Broadway, with Jay Z and Will and Jada Pinckett Smith serving as above-the-title producers, and had a decent year-long run. It also played London and gained acclaim there, too. The national touring production, which is currently on hiatus, has come back to town for a short encore run.
Fela gained fame in the late 20th century as a Nigerian political rebel and bandleader. In addition to unsuccessfully running for president, Fela was notorious for having no fewer than 27 wives. Fela! is framed and imagined as a 1977 concert intended to be his farewell to Nigeria prior to moving to a safer area due to ongoing attacks from government soldiers.
As the audience enters, the band is already playing and African art is everywhere. Soon enough, a modelesque tribe engages in freeform dance followed by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, their leader. The audience is even invited to dance along, gaining instruction at one point on how to do clock-like movements.
It’s not hard to spot some differences between the original Broadway production—which had countless multimedia screens filling the walls of the theater, which turned the show into a unique sensory experience—and the touring production, which is far less visually elaborate.
But these minor quibbles aside, the show remains an extremely vibrant celebration of Afrobeat, Fela's style of music that mixed jazz, funk and African rhythms. Director-choreographer Jones provides stunning, seemingly untamed choreography that perfectly matches Kuti’s percussive music.
Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates in the title role with Adesola Osakalumi, almost never leaves the stage. He displays a muscular, animalistic presence along with the charisma to command a loyal army of followers. Fela! is essentially his one-man show, with some hardworking dancers and singers in the background.