Sahr Ngaujah is Fela Kuti in the vibrant musical Fela! at the Curran Theatre, part of the SHN Season. Photo by Monique Carboni. Below: Melanie Marshall is Funmilayo, mother to Ngaujah’s Fela, in an otherworldly scene from Fela! Photo by Tristram Kenton
You don’t walk into Fela! expecting Oklahoma!. With the visionary Bill T. Jones serving as director, choreographer and co-writer, you know this is going to be different. And it’s going to be something to see.
Fela! is a concert, a dance extravaganza and, to a lesser degree, a theatrical biography of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. It is, in short, a raging party.
Such a hybrid experience is only fitting for Fela, a renegade pop star, activist, agitator and rebel. Was he a man driven by social conscience? By ego (he did, after all, have 28 wives)? After seeing the show, my guess is both. We’re a little short on details but long on feeling.
And that feeling, mostly, feels good. Act 1 is a full-on dance/music concert. The exuberance of Jones’ cast is phenomenal, none more so that Sahr Ngaujah in the title role. We’re told that the name Fela means “he who shines with greatness,” and that is certainly true of Ngaujah. He’s charismatic, enigmatic and incredibly funny as he takes the audience through a final performance in the Shrine, his soon-to-be-destroyed concert venue in Lagos, Nigeria.
You will be expected to dance, to gyrate, to sing. “Leave your shy outside,” Fela tells us. “Don’t bring that shit to the show.”
If you want to feel what pure music-dance ecstasy feels like, check out the number halfway through Act 1, “Originality/Yellow Fever.” How the performers and the musicians can even go on after this explosion of sight, sound and movement is somewhat mind-boggling.
The stage of the Curran Theatre pulses with vitality as the ensemble hardly ever stops moving to the afro-pop beat of an onstage band (nine pieces strong) that is absolutely on fire. The horn section alone is almost worth the price of admission.
Ngaujah as Fela talks directly to the audience, telling them about his life and his fight against the corrupt military regime destroying his beloved country. He talks about his arrests, his fights and, ultimately, the raid on his compound that resulted in horrific injuries to his minions and ultimately led to the death of his mother.
Oh, his mother. As played by the radiant Melanie Marshall, Funmilayo is all grace and spirit, her soaring soprano lifting her numbers “Trouble Sleep” and “Rain” above the gritty, propulsive Fela-penned songs that populate the rest of the show.
The song “Rain” (one of the few originals by Aaron Johnson, Jordan McLean, Jones and his co-book writer Jim Lewis) is part of a lengthy escape from reality in Act 2 when Fela visits the afterlife to commune with his mother. It’s an interesting shift both musically and visually, but it goes on quite a while and takes too long to get back to Fela, a man to whom we become rather attached.
In terms of biography, Fela! is occasionally hard to follow, and after the show I had to head to the Internet to fill in a lot of blanks.
But clearly Jones is not out to create an African version of The Boy from Oz. Fela! is its own thing, and maybe Fela is just too complex an artist to distill into strictly musical theater terms. His music speaks volumes, and that – along with the kaleidoscope of dance – is what really gives us a sense of the man fueling the legend.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Fela! continues through Dec. 11 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$200 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.