Ten years ago, it might’ve been a stretch to imagine that Bill T. Jones would be the driving force behind a potential Broadway hit, even if it had been Fela!, about the life and music of political activist and musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Jones was of course a major figure in the dance world, but his work reflected interests often polar opposite to those driving Broadway – intellectual, socially probing, formally experimental or refined. Sure, there were plenty of pop and prosaic elements in the mix, but it was not about commercial appeal.
In Fela!, which he directed and choreographed (and co-wrote with Jim Lewis), and after receiving a Tony for his work on the hit Spring Awakening, Jones has found the sweet spot in between, although his involvement in the project began as a hired choreographer. Kuti’s life approached something of the mythic. He was seemingly without limits in terms of ambition (he aimed to be president of Nigeria), carnal appetite (he married 27 women at once, his “queens”), nor art-wise (he created Afrobeat). His life story is so outsized that if it were fiction, it might be viewed as implausible.
Besides the bullet points of his epic life that serve as the skeleton, the show has many strengths. One is Fela’s music, which forms the meat, performed by the tight Brooklyn band Antibalas, directed by Aaron Johnson. The muscular rhythms and delirious blend of Yoruban, high life, jazz and funk drive the show like a locomotive.
Another highlight is the spirit provided by Sahr Ngaujah in the title role, who has an unbelievable amount of talent. In addition to singing, dancing, acting, and horn playing, his athletic frame veritably bursts with the requisite confidence and star power. Not always an easy task when you’re wearing sky blue or hot pink ensembles designed by Marina Draghici, who also did the effective catwalked club set punctuated with colored light strings.
The company also impresses, moving through Jones’ high-energy choreography and staging that maximizes the use of an aisle running through the house. Jones draws more heavily on African dance than he ever has, showcasing the thirteen self-assured ensemble members. He shows his range in a dream/heaven sequence, when he throws in a good dose of ballet to differentiate the tone, as well as some tap sequences. Abena Koomson portrays his mother Funmilayo, singing several songs in a sweet, creamy voice, and Sparlha Swa is cosmopolite Sandra, who possesses an ethereal tone.
Fela! touches on some of Kuti’s flaws – his ego, his overzealous perfectionism, his anger – and most frighteningly, the three combined. These flashes hint at deeper humanistic traits that may have prevented him from realizing his greatest ambitions. But in Ngaujah’s performance, in which he addresses the audience directly, he is never less than riveting.
The show strays toward the long side, and even though it follows events in Kuti’s life like stepping stones, the narrative is not always clear. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of an overstuffed life that cannot be summed up in one evening. In any case, there is an abundance to celebrate, and Fela! does this task justice. At 37 Arts, it is currently scheduled to close on Sept 21.