When the opening-night audience for “Fela!’’ responded with explosive applause after a showstopping number midway through act one, the title character, played by the supremely talented Sahr Ngaujah, coolly surveyed the crowd and deadpanned: “Now that we’ve got your attention…’’
In truth, the electrifying “Fela!’’ was never in the slightest danger of losing its hold on us. Who could possibly yield to any distraction when there were so many musical riches to behold, so much to hear and see and savor inside the Cutler Majestic Theatre?
Directed and dazzlingly choreographed by Bill T. Jones and propelled by Kuti’s own Afrobeat songs, “Fela!’’ is a testament not just to the charisma of one remarkable, if flawed, man, but to the power of music to capture, channel, and communicate the spirit of rebellion.
Fela personified that spirit. His full name was Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and he was a musical pioneer and a courageous political dissident in Nigeria with an outsized personality. Until he died in 1997 at 58 from complications of AIDS, Kuti lived his life on an epic scale, and “Fela!’’ is similarly epic in its aims.
The musical is structured as a concert by Kuti in the late 1970s, at a nightclub he owned in Lagos, Nigeria. The club is evocatively designed by Marina Draghici with graffiti-like renditions of a skeleton and an alligator on the wall, a mirrored disco ball twinkling high above, and a large picture of Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, hanging over the stage.
Just a few months earlier, Funmilayo, a leading activist on behalf of women’s rights in Nigeria, had died after she was thrown out a second-floor window by government soldiers who attacked the compound where Kuti lived with his wives, children, and band members, and burned it to the ground. As played with eerie grace by Melanie Marshall, who sings a haunting duet, “Trouble Sleep,’’ with Ngaujah, Funmilayo is a presence looming over “Fela!’’ as Kuti tells the story of his turbulent life and times.
Kuti’s defiant opposition to military regimes in Nigeria, expressed in songs and speeches that explicitly challenged and sometimes mocked their authority (“They’re mosquitos, just buzzing around,’’ Kuti says dismissively in “Fela!”) earned him numerous beatings and stints in prison.
On this evening, Kuti is planning to leave Nigeria. (He did so, but only briefly.) “Living in Nigeria doesn’t make sense anymore,’’ he says. “My life doesn’t make sense anymore.’’ He announces this will be his final performance — and what a performance it is. It was Kuti who, in the 1960s, originated Afrobeat, fusing West African rhythms and harmonies with jazz, funk, soul, and elements of psychedelic rock, driven by lyrics that were often politically charged. In “Fela!’’ song follows irresistible song, alternating moods of mystery, political passion (“Zombie,” “Water No Get Enemy’’), anguish (“Sorrow Tears and Blood’’), sensuality (“Lover,’’ with lyrics by Jim Lewis, sung by Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory, playing an American woman named Sandra), sly wit, and celebratory joy.
The opening number, “Everything Scatter,’’ performed by Ngaujah and the show’s dynamic ensemble, gets the collective pulse racing. A short while later “Originality/Yellow Fever’’ ups the ante still further, accelerating to a pace that practically calls for a defibrillator.
As Kuti, Ngaujah is simply sensational, start to finish. He banters expertly with the audience between songs, feigning puzzlement when the audience roars at his announcement that he plans to make a movie titled “Black President.’’ He coaxes them into movement at one point by saying “That bass line is for your body – use it,’’ and later urges them to “Leave your shy outside.’’ Listen to what the man says, and by all means, don’t miss “Fela!”Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.