International hit tuner “Fela!” was coming to the Ahmanson in 2012 anyway. But the national tour’s willingness to help plug up the hole of the “Funny Girl” cancellation means L.A. gets a welcome early present for Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, to be cherished by anyone moved by music’s power to resist oppression. Deftly employing a carnival atmosphere to convey the Nigerian people’s centuries-long struggles, “Fela!” becomes both a gem of stagecraft and a poignant human rights statement.
Tony nominee Sahr Ngaujah (spelled at certain perfs by Adesola Osakalumi) memorably incarnates the arrogant, charismatic Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) on what purports to be closing night of his Lagos underground nitery “The Shrine,” targeted by authorities as a dissent center. Depressed by the funeral of his martyred, murdered mom Funmilayo (a glowing Melanie Marshall), the founder of jazz-tinged, bassline-dominant “Afrobeat” reviews his tumultuous career before shipping out to America and the big bucks. (Though don’t expect him to be pulled easily away from his roots and his “queens,” sensuous chorus line of exotic beauties.)
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Act one cannily immerses us in the hard-driving, ganja-infused Shrine celebration, saving the heavier political and mythic subtext for act two (at, it must be said, what feels like excessive, indulgent length). Through it all, helmer Bill T. Jones’ Tony-awarded choreography shows off his dancers’ extraordinary physical control and expressiveness, while sustaining the illusion it’s all being made up in front of us, unstaged. His dances’ power to convey both unbridled joy and Woza-Africa determination to overcome lifts you effortlessly out of your workaday reality and, at the end, deservedly out of your seat.