Fela!, the exuberant bio-musical about Nigerian activist, composer, and performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, has returned to Broadway for a summer run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre as part of the production’s world tour.
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the show is conceived by Jones with Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel and features a book by Lewis and Jones. It is staged partially as a 1978 farewell concert, as Fela (Adesola Osakalumi at my performance, who alternates with original Tony-nominated star Sahr Ngaujah) gets ready to leave Nigeria following a government crackdown that resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall).
As Fela speaks directly to the audience, he sings some of his most well-known compositions such as “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” and talks about his life, politics, and music — including his formation of the Afrobeat sound, which fuses jazz, funk, and traditional African chanting. In the second act, the action takes a more surreal twist, as Fela goes on a spirit journey to commune with his dead mother.
Osakalumi is a charismatic performer, although he doesn’t quite have the same level of intensity that gives Ngaujah’s portrayal its dangerous edge. Marshall is similarly proficient enough to propel the musical forward, but her work never reaches the same heights as her Broadway predecessor, Lillias White.
Paulette Ivory makes a strong impression as Sandra, the African-American activist who not only becomes romantically involved with Fela, but also gives him a political education. Ismael Kouyate proves to be the production’s vocal powerhouse, and shines in the moments he gets to show off his skills.
Marina Draghici’s eye-popping African-influenced costumes are as effective as ever, but her vibrant and colorful scenic design has been simplified for the tour, and no longer extends out into the theater in the way the previous Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of the show did.
Ultimately, the main reason to see Fela! remains the driving beat of the music coupled with the show’s highly kinetic dances. The talented company throw themselves into Jones’ spirited choreography, which is mostly characterized by hip gyrations that are both earthy and sexual.