'Fela!' a swirl of African jams, justice

THEATER REVIEW: "Fela!" at the Oriental Theatre ★★★★

Deep into "Fela!," when Fela Anikulapo-Kuti stands defiant at The Shrine, even as the Nigerian military authorities try to break the back of his collective family, the cast of the touring musical brings out some coffins as a political memorial to those lost in the struggle for peace and freedom. Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre, one prominently bore a name I didn't see at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York back in the fall of 2009, when "Fela!" premiered on Broadway: Trayvon Martin.

Martin's killing in Sanford, Fla., history likely will show, was a matter of great complexity, just as Fela, the famous, infamous Nigerian musician, agitator and political activist, was an imperfect man about whom there was a variety of opinions. But the very fact that Martin died, whatever the details, still suggests that little which Fela talked about 40 years ago has been solved. And the presence of that name on this Chicago stage was enough to demonstrate that Bill T. Jones' gutsy, singular creation is a very unusual Broadway musical, and that this exemplary, first-class tour, led (at most performances for the next three weeks) by the show's remarkable, Tony-nominated original star, Sahr Ngaujah, is not set in stone in the usual way of such things but rather is a pulsing, organic entity determined, like its subject, to make its political positions known. And to make them sing and dance, for people of all stripes.

"Fela!" is many things, but it is first and foremost an evocation of what it was like to hear a Fela concert-come-rally at The Shrine, the combination music venue-personal compound inextricably linked with this man. The music and lyrics in this show are the work of the late Fela Kuti.

As any student of Nigeria well knows, the pain and oppression depicted unstintingly in "Fela!" is very real. Fela and his followers, whether in Lagos or London, terrified the Nigerian authorities for many years — partly because of the man's anti-establishment positions, challenging behavior and self-declaration as the ruler of his own autonomous republic — but mostly because of this formidable, well-traveled musician's command of a broad public attracted to his upbeat mix of Afrobeat and self-determination, a groove and a evangelical demand for the kind of mass, personal freedom that would threaten anyone with a tentative hold on power.

Like many intoxicating artists and spokespeople, Fela was a mix of the masculine and the feminine, a shameless but vulnerable showman in a pink jumpsuit wherein beat a heart of courageous, determined steel. He was like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rolled into one, a flashy optimist and opportunist combined with unassailable street credibility, an African nationalist with a band and a microphone, a Nigerian partisan and an artistic citizen of the broader world, all filtered through a love of Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane, music men spinning around Fela's globe.

Jones' show (the modern-dance icon directed and choreographed alone but penned the fluid book with Jim Lewis) has a trifecta of great strengths. One is Ngaujah, a formidable, in-the-moment performer who can stand content as the fun host of a chilled-out dance party and then dice and slice the mood as if he were a butcher's knife cutting through onions.

Ngaujah's attention-demanding work was astonishing on Broadway — where Marina Draghici's environmental design enveloped the entire theater — but he has a much tougher task at the much-larger Oriental, especially since the world of The Shrine now, alas, has to pulse from the proscenium alone. But he delivers this character, and thus this show, all the way to the rafters of the old joint, amping up his scale with the ease of man who's performed as Fela all over the world and who has come to know a man who could do his thing anywhere. It is a formidable piece of organic acting.

The second is the female ensemble — surrogates and representatives of Fela's famous 27 "wives" — who execute Jones' intensely difficult dance vocabulary with a signature mix of bravura technique and utter, quotidian ease.

It's a shrewd device on Jones' part, mitigating Fela's self-evident sexism by physically empowering the disparate women who chose to stand alongside him for, this choreography brilliantly suggests, a whole variety of individual reasons.

Two other women in Fela's life, his American friend Sandra and his mother, Funmilayo, are played by women who joined this production when it was at the National Theatre in London. Both Paulette Ivory and the magnificently voiced Melanie Marshall, who can make Afrobeat sound like the music of the angels, are quite fine.

There's no doubt that "Fela!," which has few of the trappings of the conventional Broadway musical, will be outside the comfort zone of some. It is loose, like Fela. But the overarching strength of Jones' piece is how it uses Fela's own interest in musical synthesis — as he explains to us in this show (the conceit is that a bunch of "international visitors" have shown up at the last concert at The Shrine), his work was a cheerfully eclectic fusion of Western and African music, the very kind of freely wheeled symbiosis that Fela thought could be the foundation of a new, free, proud Africa, where the accepting, exuberant party was always only just getting started.



When: Through April 15

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Tickets: $20-$100; broadwayinchicago.com

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