“FELA!”

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“Fela!” is a whirlwind of song and dance, a perpetual motion machine in which all the parts are nearly always moving, always gyrating, largely in synch with the Afro-beat rhythms that give the show its pulse.
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The star (and he is very much the star; he has nearly all the lines, and participates in practically all the numbers) is Fela himself, aka Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian musician, entertainer, and political activist who spent much of his life (1938-97) battling the military dictatorship that ruled his homeland.  The action takes place at a Nigerian nightclub called the Shrine; it is Fela’s last concert there, and speaking directly to the audience, he shares–in word, song, and dance–his life story. Some of the tales he tells are funny, some are serious, but in the end (particularly toward the close of the second act, when all hell breaks loose), they’re sad, tragic, and heartbreaking.
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Sahr Ngaujah, who played Fela, is a revelation.  (Kevin Mambo alternates in the role; it’s that demanding.) By turns angry and playful, bitter and charming, he turns on the jets from the moment he enters and never turns them off.  Perspiring freely under the harsh lights, he delivers a performance that is as high-octane as any you will see all year.
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Just as much of a revelation, though, is the ensemble.  Singing, dancing–and not just onstage, but also up and down the aisles–they propel the action forward and, following Ngaujah’s awesome lead, add to the evening’s frenetic energy and breath-defying pace.  (At one point, the audience is even encouraged to get out of their seats and do a little shakin’ of their own.)
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The set, dotted here and there by newspaper headlines announcing the government’s latest crackdown, and portraits of black leaders such as Malcolm X and Fela’s own mother, the heroic but doomed Fummilayo, puts you right in the middle of the political powderkeg that Nigeria had become; the costumes, especially on the women, are miniskirted and sensual at first and then, come the second act, brightly colorful; and the lighting during the long Act II sequence in which Fela “visits” his slain mother–his mentor–for guidance, sets the somber, otherworldly mood perfectly.
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Bill T. Jones, in addition to co-writing the book with Jim Lewis, directed and choreographed; Marina Draghici
designed the sets and costumes; Robert Wierzel did the lights; and Fela himself composed (most of) the music and lyrics.
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“Fela!” is well worth seeing–for the story it tells, the spectacle it offers, and the hard, painful questions it asks.   Get a ticket now–BEFORE the Tony nominations are announced.
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THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien