Will the average Broadway matinee lady be comfortable participating in a practical demonstration of how to tell time with her ass? That’s exactly what takes place in “The Clock,” a particularly frisky sequence of “Fela!” in which the entire audience is on its feet learning from the able-bodied dance corps what Swiss-movement booty work is all about. And it’s just one of countless ways in which Bill T. Jones’ wildly loose-limbed journey into the throbbing heart of Afrobeat breaks bold new ground in musical theater.
Music icons have proved hard to capture in Broadway shows of the past few years. “Jersey Boys” did it for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons by threading performance numbers through a robust biographical narrative. Working with the music of Johnny Cash and John Lennon, respectively, “Ring of Fire” and “Lennon” tried a more interpretive approach that failed.
Director-choreographer Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis sample elements from both schools, but more essentially, they take another path altogether. Rather than a straight-up chronicle of the life of late Nigerian musician-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the show is about vividly conjuring a specific atmosphere. It provides a full-immersion experiential ride through the artist’s heady, hermetic world, from his formation as a musician to his spiritual and political awakening.
Crafting a show that’s more impressionistic than informational has its limitations as well as rewards. Despite minor tightening since it premiered Off Broadway last fall, “Fela!” remains undershaped; at times, it’s repetitive and self-indulgent.
It leans more toward celebratory tribute than warts-and-all portrait. However, Fela’s egomania and retrograde attitude toward women, which ran contrary to the example of his feminist mother, are by no means glossed over. He was more galvanizing rabble-rouser than profound political thinker, and the show harnesses the anger of his anti-colonialist, anti-corruption, anti-military-rule stance without trying to articulate that rage.
More perplexing is the choice to withhold the information that Fela died of AIDS-related causes, despite a powerful agitprop finale in which “Stop HIV” and “Act up. Fight AIDS” are among the wide-reaching political slogans slapped over mock coffins.
But such reservations are secondary to the tremendous raw authenticity and electric energy of this dance-heavy bio-musical, and the dangerous sensuality of Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Kevin Mambo), who inhabits the title role with a cool command that never loses intensity.
The show is loosely structured as a 1978 farewell concert from the Shrine, the performance space in the Lagos compound Fela declared an independent republic, where he lived with his extended entourage of musicians and the 27 wives he called his “queens.” And regal they are, as represented by a band of fierce, gyrating women whose lithe bodies are hard-wired directly into the rhythms of the music and wrapped in designer Marina Draghici’s skimpy but extravagant glamazon creations.
Draghici’s vivid environmental setting lines the walls with corrugated iron, plastered in graffiti, posters, ancestral tributes, African totems and masks, all of it spilling out into the auditorium along with Robert Wierzel’s trippy, kaleidoscopic lighting. As much as the hit Broadway revival of “Hair,” this is a show that defies an audience to remain outside the experience, particularly as the dancers and musicians shimmy and weave through the aisles.
The complex layering of the Afrobeat sound is broken down and then reassembled in the opening stretch as Fela, his muscled body packed into a baby-blue Elvis jumpsuit, traces the multifold influences he absorbed at home and during his time in London and the U.S.: Yoruban chants, Highlife horns, James Brown-style funk, freeform American jazz, Cuban big bands, primal bass and a touch of Sinatra smoothness. Those sounds are blasted out onstage, starting even before the show, by a killer band that includes members of Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, led by trombonist Aaron Johnson.
Jones offers an explosive visual extension of the music in dance that welds African traditions to the choreographer’s own modern, iconoclastic language. Onto that fusion, he grafts arresting flourishes such as convulsive tap (courtesy of Gelan Lambert), goose-stepping to convey military oppression and a supernatural ballet as Fela visits the spirit world to commune with his mother, Funmilayo (Lillias White).
That character appears intermittently, a presence as vital to Fela in death as in life. White’s “Trouble Sleep” is the show’s most haunting number, while the new second-act song, “Rain,” effectively summons the weeping heavens with a hurt Broadway growl.
The show’s mosaic of semi-narrative touches on Fela’s formative relationship with African-American Black Power radical Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh); his constant persecution by police, including a hilarious episode in which he swallows an evidentiary dope stash; and his self-mythologizing dream of starring in a “Black President” movie, the humor of which resonates in fresh ways since the election of Obama.
Through it all, Ngaujah’s charismatic Fela remains imperious, whether he’s irreverent, indignant or bereft, toking on a cigar-sized spliff while appreciatively sizing up his shapely queens or staring down an authority figure and igniting his followers with rebellious fervor. It’s a titanic performance.
The show’s climax, played out to “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” is the brutal 1978 raid by Nigerian soldiers on the compound. The tragic events of that day — rape, degradation, sadistic violence — unfold as a silent litany, with Wierzel’s lights isolating each figure as accounts of their suffering are projected in text.
In the solemn protest that follows, a procession snakes through the theater aisles, spreading that spirit of shared pain and unbroken endurance usually only summoned at memorial rallies. Such political passion is not exactly commonplace in a Broadway musical, but it’s one of many ways in which “Fela!” breaks the mold.