Chicagoans are lucky to be able to catch Tony Award winner Sahr Ngaujah in the title role of Fela! at the Oriental Theatre. The musical tells the real-life story of Fela (pronounced Feh-LA) Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian musician and political activist who died in 1997. Ngaujah has played the title role to rave reviews on Broadway and, last year, to crowds in Lagos, Nigeria. Ngaujah is Fela Kuti reborn — strutting, proclaiming, generating energy onstage.
Indeed it is sometimes hard to distinguish history from what’s happening on the stage, which reproduces The Shrine, the club where Kuti performed in Lagos in the late 1970s, fending off the soldiers of Nigeria’s military dictatorship as he engaged his audience. In Fela! Kuti’s audience is Ngaujah’s audience, and those seated will be asked to stand to sing along and take a dance lesson. Fela!’s music and lyrics are Kuti’s music and lyrics.
But there are important differences. This is not, after all, straight biography but a musical with a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, the renowned American choreographer, who also serves as Fela!’s choreographer. Fela!’s greatest strength, besides the multi-talented Ngaujah, is its dancing. Jones’ choreography — nicely executed by the sizable ensemble — blends the pounding rhythms of African dance with the twirling movements of the contemporary dance for which Jones is known. Because African dance is the basis for jazz dance, and because Kuti lived for a time in the U.S., bringing back a love for Sinatra among others, these co-influences inform one another and enliven the production.
Kuti’s music similarly blended influences from around the globe to create a new kind of music, Afrobeat, with eclectic rhythms and incendiary lyrics that openly defied the dictatorship and landed Kuti in hot water. The singing is terrific, especially Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo (Kuti’s mother, a prominent women’s rights activist who died as the result of injuries she suffered when her son’s compound was stormed by the military) and Paulette Ivory as Sandra.
Because Fela! is a musical about music, instrumentation is as important as singing, and here Fela! also excels. The 10-person band is right on stage, part of the action. Aaron Johnson conducts and plays trombone and keyboard. Greg Gonzalez’s drumming — “The drum is the impulse of life,” says Fela — underlies all.
What does not work as well, however, is the telling of the story, directed by Jones. As good as Jones is as a choreographer, he is not as successful as a director or writer. The story of Kuti’s political activism and his mother’s death never achieves the dramatic focus required. Effective use of video screens (projection design by Peter Nigrini) helps tell the story — the kaleidoscopic lighting threatens to distract at times — but it never reaches a strong climax.
The story is an important one and deserves telling. At one point Fela sums up the terrible tradeoff colonization brought to Nigeria: “Our oil and diamonds are gone. We got venereal disease and Jesus.” Kuti’s message and his music lives on in Nigeria and in Fela!
Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago
March 28 – April 15
Tickets available at Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line (800-775-2000), Ticketmaster retail locations and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.