Does music have political clout? Fela Anikulapo-Kuti certainly thought so.
Although greatly influenced by such diverse musical giants as Miles Davis, James Brown and Frank Sinatra, the Nigeria-born trumpeter sought to create his own musical voice, one that included ideas from the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
The result became “Afrobeat,” a genre that brought together his Yoruban heritage, Cuban stylings and American jazz. Gifted choreographer Bill T. Jones --winning a very well-deserved Tony Award -- has captured the pulse and the power of the man as well as his music in “Fela!” Taking Kuti’s Afrobeat and Jones’ dance to the aisles and virtually to the rafters of the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the musical’s Arts Emerson tour is unquestionably the most exciting show to hit the Hub since last year’s fiery tour of the recent revival of “Hair.”
Like “Hair,” “Fela!” draws the audience into an experience. The revival of “Hair” –with performers hugging theatergoers and playing with their hair-invited audiences to revel in a 1960’s free-spirited happening but also called into question the thinking that helped to land some of America’s best and brightest youth in Vietnam. Right from the start, “Fela!” pulls its audience into the ambience and the rich rhythms of Afrobeat. Thanks to scenic and costume designer Marina Draghici, the stage and its environs becomes a replica of Kuti’s own Lagos, Nigeria private nightclub called The Shrine and many of the characters become his Koola Lobitos band, now called Africa 70.
During this exuberant celebration of Kuti’s distinctive and captivating music, book collaborators Jim Lewis and Jones call on theatergoers to stand and join Kuti and his band in what may seem like dance exercises during Kuti’s “Underground Spiritual Game “The Clock”) but evolve into full body moves that bring identification with Kuti’s populist thinking as well as his ethnic pride as a Yoruban and an African.
News stories projected by designer Peter Nigrini above the back of the stage and even above box seats keep Nigeria’s -- and much of Africa’s major issues – political corruption, endangered freedoms, hunger and poverty.
A large stage left image of Kuti’s 82 year old mother Funmilayo -- thrown out a window by government-sanctioned enemies and suffering injuries that led to her death-- signals her impact as his constant mentor.
If Jones’ high energy choreography catches the dynamism of Kuti as a singular musical force, his book with Jim Lewis does the same for the Nigerian native son’s fearlessness as the leader of the MOP-Movement of the People political party -- and two-time candidate for president of his people.
Sahr Ngaujah , a deserved Tony Award nominee, has all of Kuti’s drive and determination as well as his charisma-especially during “The Storming of Kalakuta (his republic commune).”
Melanie Marshall is properly understated yet majestic as Funmilayo. Paulette Ivory as plucky Sandra -- a woman on the same page as Kuti with regard to the priorities of Nigeria’s poor millions -- matches Sahr’s authority.
Ismael Kouyate captures James Brown’s legendary performance moves in an eye-catching rendition of his “I Got the Feeling.”
Kuti died of complications from AIDS in 1997. The one million people who attended his funeral in Nigeria attest to the enormity of his influence. In the long run, his nearly 70 albums may have as much of an impact.
“Fela!” is a soaring tribute to his luminous life!