There’s an inherent danger in marrying blockbuster musical theater with weighty subjects like political and social oppression. On one hand, the people must be entertained and stimulated...shiny lights everywhere, please! On the other, such stories demand a faithful and meaningful reading, with all respect paid to the maligned. And somehow, neither can be compromised.
But here is the genius of Fela! — the touring musical about the life of Afrobeat pioneer/political activist Fela Kuti, currently running at the Curran Theatre (and running through Dec. 11) — which took Broadway by storm in 2009, garnering a handful of Tony Awards and critical acclaim. Neither struggle nor ideology nor personality is lost amidst the pomp of Bill T. Jones’ stunning choreography. Instead, the twain of spectacle and story meet on complementary and often gripping terms.
Much of that has to do with the charisma and hyphenate talent of its centerpiece, Sahr Ngaujah, every bit the star as Fela himself, deftly skilled on multiple fronts: as actor, musician, dancer, evangelical instructor and even jokester, with a sparkle in his eye to match the glistening sweat of his performance. Three words: Tour. de. Force.
Ngaujah effortlessly captures the complexities of a man who rose to international prominence as a trailblazer in the Afrobeat genre, blending a gamut of influences — John Coltrane, Bob Marley, James Brown, Cuban jazz and beyond — with his accounts of life in 1970s Nigeria. For Kuti, music was not only a tool for change, but also a weapon, and treated as such by his government. His status as social influencer and spokesman for the people was met with persecution from a corrupt and tyrannical Nigerian power structure, oil rich but not exactly the sharing type. “The money doesn’t flow,” Fela explains in Act I.
Jones and fellow story engineer Jim Lewis frame the narrative at Fela’s compound-venue known as The Shrine, ground zero for his utopian experiment, where he lived with family and myriad wives. The surrounding city is Lagos, where thugs and soldiers are only distinguished by the clothes on their back. To this, we look no further than Fela’s original songs to understand why, in his words, “too much Nigeria can mean a broken head.”
Ngaujah is staunch as the eternal optimist in Act I. As we are ushered through the points of reference and influence of Fela’s bio, our protagonist changes in an honest way, alternately confident and smug as he goes to Britain to study music, and then America to find purpose. It is here he meets the highly evolved Sandra (Paulette Ivory; sophisticated, sassy, curvy), who introduces Fela to the thinkers and writers and activists behind the American civil rights movement, which would come to shape his position against colonialism in Africa.
What gives Fela! its exclamation point is the interactive and real-life concert feeling of the first act. At various points, Ngaujah beckons the audience to sing along in call-and-response form (although cutting us off a few times when we were just getting started), and even leads a workshop on Afrobeat dance (which was...hilarious — can’t recall ever seeing more awkward, uncomfortable white people trying to shake their booties; they should really pass out cocktails with the Playbills).
It was best to leave the dancing to Fela’s army of background dancers/singers/wives. Jones, by now a living legend of a choreographer, clearly went to great pains to study the movements associated with 1970s Afrobeat culture, and deftly harnesses the sensual but athletic physique of his dancers. The overall visual impression seemed equally faithful, of a specific time and place, the work of Scenic & Costume Designer Marina Draghici, whose real talent was exposed in Act II when things get dark for Fela and the Shrine becomes a terrifying nightmare-scape (and major kudos to Robert Wierzel’s lighting design during these scenes, which feel like opium dreams gone awry).
When things come to a head between Fela and his political oppressors, he reverts back to the teachings and spiritual guidance of his murdered mother (Melanie Marshall), also politically active as a Maoist sympathizer. Marshall nearly steals the show in a few solos, her voice soulfully resonant and generally of a higher order.
The sum effect is a general but also specific sense of righteousness. Wayward multinational corporations of yesterday and today are invoked — from DeBeers to Enron to Halliburton to BP and, not to be forgotten, the IMF, and so on and so depressingly forth — as modern-day parallels to the institutional foes he would scrutinize today, were he still alive and causing a ruckus. We can easily picture Fela playing his sax on the front lines of the Occupy movement, fighting the good fight with his weapon of choice.
Catch Fela! at the Curran Theatre through December 11. Tickets can be found here. 445 Geary Street.