Like the Afrobeat sound that provides its backdrop, Fela! is an amalgam of different styles that add up to something entirely new.
This musical-theatre concoction may not be fully free of artificiality, as its subject, Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti, purported to be in one of his hits, but it's definitely an original; once you get into its rhythm, it'll carry you away.
Fela! begins as a recreation of a concert at Kuti's Afrika Shrine in Lagos, with the astonishing Sahr Ngaujah channelling the life force of the titular singer, saxophonist and bandleader who died in 1997. (Adesola Osakalumi fills in for Ngaujah for certain shows; based on Ngaujah's sweat-soaked performance, he no doubt needs the rest.)
This particular concert resurrects Kuti during his musical prime, somewhere around 1977, shortly after one of the most horrific events in his life.
Upon releasing an album with songs that criticized the Nigerian army as "zombies," his compound was reportedly raided by 1,000 soldiers who beat and tortured Kuti, his wives and band and threw his aging mother, Funmilayo, from a window, killing her.
When Kuti takes the stage this evening then, he informs the audience this will be his final concert in Lagos – he's had enough of the "game" between him and the government, and comfortable fame in Europe and the United States beckons.
This frame created by the show's writers Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis doesn't dominate the evening however. Fela! morphs throughout.
It's part musicology lesson as Kuti explains how he discovered the Afrobeat sound by pulling together the drums from West African highlife and the ragged guitars from James Brown with traditional call-and-response vocals. As a front-man-in-training rambling around London in the early 1960s, he absorbed the influences of the two different shades of cool represented by Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis.
Kuti then leads the audience in a dance lesson, perhaps one of the evening's least effective sequences, and through some of his autobiography, parts of which are reenacted in front of us, others simply told in story and song.
There are also frequent African dance numbers from the smoking ensemble choreographed by Jones, during which Ngaujah's Kuti gets a break from the spotlight by miming playing the tenor saxophone on the sidelines. (The actual sax player for these solos is a big, white guy named Morgan Price who really wails; like the rest of the hot band, he's visible throughout.)
What ultimately ties Fela! together and makes it work so well is Ngaujah's performance, which earned him a Tony Award nomination in New York and critical love in London and hasn't dulled on tour. He has all the virile and slightly intimidating charm of a bona fide rock star. He is a sly improviser too; on opening night he casually chastised an audience member who asked him to pass a massive joint too soon.
In Fela!, Lewis and Jones do focus on the more crowd-pleasing elements of Kuti's politics – his embrace of marijuana and attacks on militarism, corruption and corporate imperialism – while slightly brushing over the less palatable elements like his polygamy. His own sexually imperialist attitude toward women is underplayed in favour of an emphasis on his worship of his mother, an operatic, otherworldly presence voiced by Melanie Marshall.
By the time Kuti heads on a confusingly staged, glow-in-the-dark journey to the Yoruba afterlife to seek his mother's blessing in the second act, it's clear that Fela! simply goes wherever it wants to go, whenever it wants, structure be damned. And yet, this is fitting. Kuti's music, similarly, was not about concise, commercial, radio-friendly hits, but rather long, ambling jams where the intensity was allowed to ebb and flow. This isn't a jukebox musical, but a theatrical jam session full of life.
Fela! runs until Nov. 6.
- Written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones
- Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti
- Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones
- Starring Sahr Ngaujah and Adesola Osakalumi
- At the Canon Theatre in Toronto