What does it take to break a person? How much violence, slander and abuse can be taken before one gives up on the goodness of life?
In Fela Kuti’s case, it turns out that it takes quite a lot. Kuti was a Nigerian musician and social activist and the Ordway’s latest musical Fela!, which tells Kuti’s life story, is a testament to the exuberance and resilience of the human spirit.
Fela!, mainly set in Kuti’s famous club the Afrika Shrine, displays all of the ups and downs of Kuti’s role as a renowned symbol of African protest against corrupt regimes. Weaving back and forth between Kuti’s time in America, London and his homes in Africa,Fela! clearly displays Kuti’s inspirations as he creates Afrobeat, finds bravery and purpose in the Black Power/Black Panther movement and devastation at the hands of Nigerian military aggression.
Sahr Ngaujah’s portrayal of Fela Kuti is marvelous, and he has received well-deserved Tony and Olivier award nominations for his performance. Ngaujah shimmys, whoops and bounds across the stage, using every inch of space available to him to demonstrate Kuti’s struggles and bravery. He’s no musical slouch either, with a red velvet voice and a set of spectacular chops on the saxophone.
As often seems to happen, Fela!’s most powerful musical moments came from cameos, this time of Kuti’s mother Funmilayo (played by Melanie Marshall). Marshall wields her voice across ungodly extremes, with an enormous, powerful range and a host of sound effects that are the vocal equivalent of kazoos. Her songs are riveting and alone worth the ticket price.
The rest of the cast shares strong vocals as well, although focus more naturally draws to their furious dance skills. Stomping, chanting, krumping, “clocking,” tap dancing and more, they don’t let the audience’s eyes rest for a moment. A particularly fascinating highlight is their portrayal of a Yoruba religion dream sequence through dance, a flashmob-like introduction to orishas, shamans and spirituality.
Each member of the band, which is ever-present on stage, helps set the pace for Kuti’s exuberance or despair, hitting pitch-perfect tempos and inducing the audience to their feet to dance along. It’s a shame there aren’t more spectacular instrumental groups like this in clubs these days.
Musical highlights include the gorgeous adaptation of “Trouble Sleep,” an extraordinary tenor sax solo from Ngaujah on “Zombie” and those otherworldly tones from Marshall in “Rain.” These three tunes are some of this year’s musical standouts on stage, and the rest of the score is also delightful.
Fela! displays all of the qualities that a musical should be, featuring gorgeous music, riveting visuals and an explicit and carefully relayed political message to boot. Many (if not most) shows that discuss racial issues could stand to learn from this deftly maneuvered play, and I’d love to see Fela!’s careful consideration spread.
Fela! is a must-see, so catch it while you can.