Forget the iced cappuccino. For a summer blast that’ll really get you up on your feet, “Fela!” is in town through Aug. 4 as part of its world tour.
The boogie-driven bio, staged with high-test energy and originality by Bill T. Jones, celebrates Nigerian music star, activist, pot smoker and polygamist Fela Kuti.
The show premiered in 2008 at 37 Arts and a year later moved to Broadway, where it ran until early 2011. Since then, it’s been seen in Los Angeles, London, Nigeria and beyond.
“Fela” has circled back to Broadway with Tony-nominated Sahr Ngaujah in the title role of the Afrobeat pioneer who died at 58 from AIDS in 1997.
Sexy beast Ngaujah gives a persuasive star turn — again. When he bids you to rise up and move, you do. (He’ll be on the ABC series “Last Resort” in the fall.) At some performances, Fela will be played by Adesola Osakalumi or Duain Martyn.
Over its two and a half hours, the show recalls Fela’s partying, politics and music in a propulsive mix of dance, song and personal journey. There are enough moneymakers in motion to rival “Magic Mike.”
Fela was the father of Afrobeat, which blended African rhythms, funk, jazz and hot-blooded horns. In hits like “Zombie” and “International Thief Thief,” Fela used songs to decry dirty West African politicians.
Music brought him notoriety and enemies. His mother, Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall, who appeared in National Theatre of Great Britain production) was killed in a raid by soldiers in 1977.
The story by Jones and Jim Lewis is set several months after that incident at the Shrine, a Nigerian club rendered in ramshackle detail. Fela’s giving a farewell concert, along with his dazzling band, dancers and a fleet of exotic women under his thrall.
Jones’ Tony-winning choreography casts its own powerful, don’t-look-away spell. The movement is raw and sensual, sometimes frenzied.
In recalling Fela’s life, the production covers corruption, poverty and oppression. Jones is an artist who colors outside the lines, and in final scenes, the show leaps beyond issues Fela dealt with directly. A coffin emblazoned with the name Trayvon Martin speaks to the timeless quality of controversy and injustice.
The show hits hard, but doesn’t hammer and become a “message” musical. At one point, Fela explains that his name means he who “shines with greatness.” That fits for this jolting and joyous show.
Though often regarded as the season of sloth, summer has its own energy. It’s what you sense in the suddenly wayward walks of city dwellers, liberated by wearing as few clothes as possible. Purposeful strides have been exchanged for something hypnotic, rhythmic and faintly subversive.
You feel that people could break into a dance at any second, or open a fire hydrant, or maybe even storm a barricade. Not for nothing do we celebrate both the American and French Revolutions in sweaty old July.
If you have even an ember of this energy within you — and who doesn’t right about now? — you can expect “Fela!” to fan it into a flame. This exultant and unorthodox biomusical about a singing African revolutionary, first staged on Broadway in 2009, reopened with perfect timing for a limited engagement on Thursday night, smack between Independence Day and Bastille Day.
Running only through Aug. 4 at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, “Fela!” incorporates the spirit of summertime insurrection as infectiously as any show I can think of. As staged by the choreographer Bill T. Jones, and written by Mr. Jones with Jim Lewis, “Fela!” translates one man’s life into a nonstop banquet of movement both sensuous and angry. And though this production has been on the road — in Europe as well as the United States — pretty much nonstop since it last saw Broadway, it shows no signs whatsoever of flagging.
The production’s title character, the chart-topping Nigerian pop star and government-baiting political agitator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is still portrayed by the electrifyingly insolent Sahr Ngaujah (with Adesola Osakalumi taking over for some performances). But the show’s leading ladies — Melanie Marshall (as Fela’s daunting and undaunted mother) and Paulette Ivory (as one of his 27 wives), who both appeared in the National Theater version in London — will be new to New York audiences.
Ms. Marshall’s uncanny, range-roving singing in itself justifies revisiting “Fela!” Yet while it seems strange to say of a musical that chronicles the impact of a charismatic leader, “Fela!” isn’t about individual performances. Or rather, it’s about a lot of individual performances — and I mean every single dancer, singer and band member — forming a collective whole in which singular style is never sacrificed. “Fela!” is about as close as showbiz gets to a democracy of talent.
That, above all, is what strikes me in seeing “Fela!” for the fourth (or is it the fifth?) time. Choruses of Broadway musicals are traditionally most notable for their synchronicity, with everyone executing exactly the same steps at the same time. Kathleen Marshall’s recent revival of “Anything Goes” was the ne plus ultra example of the effectiveness of this approach.
But while all the performers in “Fela!” are moving to the same beat — Afrobeat, to be exact, and mostly via songs written by Fela, who died in 1997 — each does so in his or her own distinctive way. And while the costumes by Marina Draghici (who also designed the kinetically charged, graffiti-splashed set) reflect a single sensibility, an urban-tribal hybrid, they are worn with highly individualized style. Even in rigorously choreographed ensemble numbers, each figure onstage remains a distinct and inviolable personality.
They’re a reminder of the infinity of movements that can be achieved with arms, legs and, above all, hips. The pelvis is the true solar plexus of “Fela!,” and it is put to extraordinarily potent use by the dancers here. This is true not only of the exquisite, multiform and definitely nonsubservient women portraying Fela’s wives (who present the best argument I’ve seen for polygamy) but also of the spliff-sucking male dancers, whose choreographic vocabulary ranges from tap (but as you’ve never seen it before) to acrobatics.
The show, which takes place during what is advertised as the last concert in Fela’s self-contained nation of a compound in Lagos, features a variety of striking set pieces. These include a stately but sassy funeral procession, a biographical montage of Fela’s years in the United States (where he meets the still baffling and underwritten character played by Ms. Ivory) and a hallucinatory visit to the ancestral afterlife.
But the number that best captures this production’s essence comes early. It’s a piece resonantly titled “Originality/Yellow Fever,” and it allows the different performers to embody the elements of Afrobeat style. There’s no question that they’re all drinking from the same musical source, but each also emerges as a brilliant solo artist.
When these dancers later move robotically in a satirical song called “Zombie,” you may find yourself feeling bereft. These people, like most people, were never meant to be identically programmed. And though Fela’s political platform may be hazy at best (peace, love, rock ’n’ roll and marijuana, man), you have a visceral awareness of the individual freedom at stake and in danger here. In “Fela!” dancing isn’t just entertainment — it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.