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For the first exhilarating hour of Fela!, as you cheer, stand, sway, dance, whoop, vibrate, and holler along with star Sahr Ngaujah and a ferociously energetic supporting cast, you’re apt to wonder how on earth this riot of movement, revolutionary politics, and Afrobeat incandescence could have shuttered on Broadway without winning every Tony in town and clocking at least 15 years of performances. Ninety minutes later, you’ll have your answer, but damn, that is one astonishing first act.
“Everybody say ‘Yeah! yeah!’” exhorts Ngaujah shortly after arriving on stage as Nigerian singer/agitator Fela Kuti in an embroidered, powder-blue jumpsuit that ought to look preposterous but that he somehow turns fierce. The evening re-creates (with a few spiritual flourishes) a concert in a Lagos nightspot called The Shrine. It’s his last show before leaving the country for good, Fela tells us, and he’s determined not to go quietly, propelled by an onstage conga/sax/trumpet/electric-guitar frenzy (Aaron Johnson’s 10-piece band), acrobatic male dancers, and a brace of African queens who lead with their hips.
Watch the wings during a seriously pumped pre-overture overture that sets the auditorium buzzing, and you’ll get a tantalizing taste of what those hips can do, bouncing and waggling in ways that barely seem anatomically possible. That’s just a taste, mind you. The real show comes once Bill T. Jones’ frenetic, floor-rattling choreography kicks in, and the cast erupts in delirious paroxysms that put Broadway’s usual tap frenzies to shame. Pick a movement—a kick, a shoulder roll, a neck thrust—and imagine doing it 50 times a minute, and you’ll stand in awe of what these folks do. Actually, you’ll literally stand in awe at one point, when Ngaujah gets the crowd on its feet to try a step or two. (“Step” isn’t quite the word, really, but I’m not sure how to articulate the moves required to tell time with your ass—moves that the opening night Shakespeare Theater crowd engaged in with a startling, almost endearing absence of reserve.)
If Fela!’s message is outrage—at colonialism, corruption, oppression of all sorts—the show’s medium is music, its method infectious. It’s easy to see why Nigeria’s military dictatorship would have found the real Fela’s popularity in the 1970s as dangerous as his incendiary lyrics. They had him arrested dozens of times, but his hold on the audience only grew. And for a time—as numbers like “B.I.D. (Breaking it Down)” trace the development and sources of Afrobeat—that hold is echoed in the show that bears his name and employs his music (augmented in spots by additional music and lyrics by Jim Lewis, Aaron Johnson, and Jordan McLean). Late in the evening, in extended dream sequences and appeals to Fela’s martyred mother—who’s sung rapturously by Melanie Marshall and seems to be her own lighting effect—the magic weakens a bit. Ngaujah remains plenty charismatic, but the show lets him down as it shoehorns in a bit of plot.
Still, the onstage energy rarely flags, and if the evening feels attenuated at two-and-a-half hours, it offers raucous entertainment, fiery political fury, a hypnotic leading man, and those astonishing, ever-moving hips. Everybody say “Yeah! Yeah!”