There’s no better dancing on Broadway than what’s currently on view in Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones and now playing the Eugene O’Neill Theatre following a successful Off-Broadway run at 37 Arts last year. The sheer exuberance of the performers makes this bio-musical about Nigerian activist, composer, and performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti an exciting and richly rewarding theatrical experience.
The show — conceived by Jones with Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel and featuring a book by Lewis and Jones — is staged partially as a 1978 farewell concert, as Fela (Sahr Ngaujah at my performance, who alternates with Kevin Mambo) gets ready to leave Nigeria following a government crackdown that resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo (Lillias White). 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.
The move to Broadway has resulted in a tighter show, with its unwieldy three-hour Off-Broadway running time shortened to a more manageable two and a half hours. However, all the main narrative beats remain intact, and sometimes seem even clearer than before. Portions of Fela’s life still come off as overly romanticized (particularly his wedding to multiple women, here played more for comic effect), but overall the character of Fela appears to be more fleshed out. Much of the credit for this should be shared with Ngaujah, whose already energetic and charismatic performance has gotten even better.
White, who is new to the cast, shines as Funmilayo (sometimes literally, thanks to Robert Wierzel’s lighting). Her delivery of the Afrobeat ballad “Trouble Sleep” in Act One is terrific, but she really blows the audience away in the spectacular “Rain” in the second act, which interestingly enough is the only song in the show not written by Kuti. (It features music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, with lyrics by Jones and Lewis).The band — comprised of members of Antibalas and other Afrobeat musicians — is also excellent, and as much a part of the production as the cast.
Marina Draghici’s eye-popping African-influenced costumes are as effective as ever, but her still vibrant and colorful scenic design that extends into the house of the theater doesn’t work as well with the O’Neill’s architecture as it did at 37 Arts. The larger venue has also resulted in a loss of intimacy, and the interactive moments within Fela! now seem forced. This is particularly noticeable during the segment of the production wherein Fela demonstrates a rotating pelvic movement that he wants the crowd to mimic. No one in my immediate vicinity did so, whereas when I saw the show Off-Broadway, nearly everyone gave it a go. It could also be that this moment comes too early in the musical, and the audience has not quite warmed up to the participatory revelry that characterized the show’s previous run.
Most of the highly kinetic dances performed by the talented company involve hip gyrations that are both earthy and sexual. When Jones breaks this pattern, using militaristic angular movements in the social protest number, “Zombie,” the change is immediately noticeable and amplifies the dramatic tension. There are also several break-out moments contained within the production during which individual dancers are given the opportunity to strut their stuff — and they do it very well!