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Fela!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fela!
Sahr Ngaujah and company.
Photo by Monique Carboni

When facing down troublemakers, is it better to engage them directly, or to just let them burn themselves out? That’s the central question of the new musical Fela!, which just opened at 37 Arts. It’s addressed both directly and indirectly, with regards to its subject, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and itself, one of the most energetic, thrilling, and exciting musicals that never delivers either thrills or excitement.

But, oh, that energy.

Bill T. Jones, who conceived the show with Jim Lewis and Steve Hendel, who wrote the book with Lewis, and who directed and choreographed it alone, has finally earned the Tony he won last year for choreographing Spring Awakening. This nonstop spectacle of song and dance bumps, grinds, and rumbles with more concentrated force than any other jukebox musical since Jersey Boys. Add a human perpetual-motion machine named Sahr Ngaujah as the title character, and you have that rare kind of musical that doesn’t define a kinetic landscape, but constructs one from component atoms.

In reimagining Anikulapo-Kuti’s 1977 farewell concert at The Shrine, the Lagos nightclub where he frequently held court, Jones has fashioned a conspicuously polished biography of the Nigerian revolutionary who proved that the beat is mightier than the sword. As Ngaujah plays Fela, one of Nigeria’s most-arrested men (over 200 times, he informs us with a sly hint of pride), you see in his face all the pain of having his activist mother, Funmilayo (Abena Koomson), murdered in a raid, and the threat of the cops just outside the Shrine, bubbling beneath a more pressing reality: there’s a show to do.

And Fela wants to ensure that his final performance is as much a tribute to rebellion itself as it is to him and his music. So, yes, he’ll pull out his saxophone a few times and wail to crack the rafters. But he’ll also take misty jaunts into memory and deconstruct the rhythms of his Afrobeat style and of the erotically charged nyansh dancing he favors (“Some call it funk,” he explains), leaving projections and video (smartly designed by Peter Nigrini) and even the graffiti-dressed set (Marina Draghici) to fill in the gaps in a life too politically and personally expansive to ever be contained in a single evening.

Trouble does not even arise, as you might predict, from trimming down Anikulapo-Kuti’s own songs from 20 or even 30 minutes to four or five. With some new lyrics by Lewis, new music by Aaron Johnson (also the musical director) and Jordan McLean, and shoulder-bustingly brassy arrangements by Johnson, McLean, and Antibalas, they thoughtfully and concisely chart Fela’s protests against corrupt governments and the uninvolved citizens that allow them to flourish. The numbers, which ornament everything from a sing-along blessing to the difficult journey ahead, to Fela’s plaintive recollections of living with his mother in the public crosshairs, fit snugly into Fela’s story and, like the crisp, declarative book, never make a noticeable dramaturgical misstep.

One should not, however, underestimate the intoxicating allure of at least partial imperfection. Despite all the audience involvement woven throughout, this rigorously researched and recklessly regimented show is too certain of its own powers of persuasion to need to be completed by anyone watching it.

Fela, his muse Sandra (Sparlha Swa), and the eight lithe-limbed females he calls the Queens are so content with themselves, that none of the vivacity that drops from them while swiveling, strutting, and stamping their way through Jones’s unstoppably undulating choreography ever really flows beyond the footlights. Because Fela! lets you attend it without being drawn into it, this inherently theatrical musical ultimately feels more like an Academy Award-winning documentary than it does the visceral invocation of suppressed humanity it yearns to be.

The most affection you can derive from this explosively sedate evening is for Ngaujah himself, who runs through his marathon star-making role, seemingly without ever pausing for breath. Almost never offstage, and absolutely never off-message, he brings a laser-focused devotion and a supple physicality to his portrayal that practically scrape away his less-than-fully developed ability to shock your heart as easily as your spine.

At least he radiates the reckless spirit with which the real Anikulapo-Kuti captivated a nation by blending his songs and his causes until they were indistinguishable. Jones is somewhat less successful at obscuring the show’s seams, but there’s no denying the great alchemical strides he’s already made in identifying Fela and Fela! as uniquely worthy creations. But if the results at this point are far from leaden, they’re also not yet golden.


Fela!
Through September 21
37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster