If you haven't listened to Afrobeat before you see Fela!, the bio-musical about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, don't worry. The opening scenes, which are some of the production's most effective, are all about what Fela (Sahr Nguajah) calls "b.i.d.": breaking it down.
He's ostensibly telling us about his early life--that is, before he created the genre of music that went on to become a rally cry against Nigeria's oppressive military dictatorships. But it is an early life lived almost exclusively through musical influences, everything from the club music and traditional Yoruba chants he was exposed to growing up, to Sinatra and jazz and Cuban music, and finally, to James Brown.
As he recounts his peripatetic salad days, a ten-piece band of saxophones, trombone, trumpet, guitars, and all kinds of percussion conjures each necessary style at his beck and call, essentially providing a lively music history overview that both draws in the uninitiated and titillates the aficionados.
But the b.i.d. doesn't stop there: Fela's next task is to build a single song from the drums up, layering in each instrument one by one so you can see how each contributes to the finished product--a rousing, freewheeling, funky art form whose drum and guitar-fuelled beat gives the politically suggestive illusion of a march that could go on forever.
Many audience members, as book writers Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones know, are "staying for the music," and so music and lyrics adhere closely to the Fela originals and are performed with contagious gusto, especially by Morgan Price on the tenor sax, Fela's instrument of choice. But the production, under the direction of Bill T. Jones, is more than an excellent concert. It's a theatrical endeavor that's both entertaining as a good ol-fashioned musical and interesting as a work of art.
As Fela, Ngaujah radiates the impossible cool and sexual charisma that makes men want to be him and a group of women, when they are all simultaneously asked to marry him, respond with a unison, "Yea-yea." He even makes the candy-colored polyester suits he has to wear look attractive. Ngaujah seems to take deep pleasure in interacting with audiences, and they're happy to do his bidding--even if that means standing up and shaking their booties.
He is flanked by a cast who revel in Jones's wild, even spastic choreography, and whose unique voices--Ismael Kouyate's haunting, warbly tenor and Melanie Marshall's piercingly pitchy soprano--only further enrich a score that at times is almost overwhelmingly vibrant. In fact, it is only through their musical contributions that the characters in Fela's life--his mother (Marshall), a feminist activist, or Sandra (Paulette Ivory), his American girlfriend--effectively make their presence known. The book waxes a little trite--as in, trying to stage a debate between African-American black power and African activism in about a minute--when it veers too far from Fela's own monologue.
Director Jones relies a little too much on video projections to convey that monologue, and the show can wander: A couple of times, Ngaujah walks offstage or talks to his band without a clear reason, and blithely takes his time to regain momentum.
But a musical like this wouldn't feel right with a slick, producer-mandated pace or too much standard Broadway sheen. And Jones always regains her theatrical footing eventually--with something small, like a judicious shift in lighting that highlights a new element in Marina Craghici's colorful set design, or with something huge, like an Expressionist extravaganza in the dream world of Yoruba mythology.
And of course, there's always the music.