Image courtesy Ordway Center
I would say that Fela! is an unlikely Broadway hit, except that the last few years have blown a lot of the dust off the traditional musical. Still, a two-and-a-half-hour show centered on a musical style and master musician who, four decades after his brilliant body of work and 15 years since his death, is still not nearly as well known as he should be, could be a hard sell.
It could be a hard sell, except that Fela! works not just as an introduction to the titular artist's music, politics, and life, but offers an immersive, pulsating evening of theater. There's so much going on at any one moment that the show threatens to spiral out of control, but mainly manages to keep on track and produce a thrilling evening.
The play follows Nigerian musician, political activist, and iconoclast Fela Kuti as he tells his life story at the final concert of the Afrika Shrine, a nightclub he set up and gigged at regularly during the 1970s. The book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones doesn't exactly probe deep into Fela's political or social motivations, but the show is structured to let the music do a lot of the talking.
Afrobeat is a far cry from traditional Broadway music, but the hypnotic grooves and funky backbone gives the songs a swing that most modern composers would kill for. The staging takes advantage of this at every turn, using video screens, lights, and dancers in constant motion to create a hypnotic, enthralling trance.
At the center of this is Sahr Ngaujah as Fela. Possessing charm to spare, Ngaujah fills the entirety of the Ordway with his (and Fela's) presence, taking the sometimes hesitant audience along for the ride. Not only does he capture Fela's outsized personality, but he is a commanding singer as well, bringing out all of the warmth, humor, anger, and pain of the original compositions, which often focus on the political turmoil of his homeland.
All of the energy, pulsating music, and overheated emotions threaten to ride the play off the rails. It finally does near the end, as Fela goes on a quest to commune with the spirit of his mother, Funmilayo, who was murdered by soldiers. It all concludes with "Rain," one of the few songs in the work not written by Fela, and suffers from the comparison. The show does right itself soon after, with a charged recreation of what Fela did after his mother's death: He brought the coffin to the home of Nigeria's military leader. Now, that's real drama, and a moment expertly played by all.
IF YOU GO:
Ordway Center for the Arts
345 Washington St., St. Paul
For information, call 651.224.4222 or visit online