BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Broadway has never before witnessed a musical quite like "Fela!" — an explosive mix of catchy Afrobeat rhythms, wild, sexy dancing and raw bio-dramatics — and while its unique charms certainly are powerful, one frankly wonders whether this unusual show will catch on with the mainstream public.
Still, anyone really and truly serious about experiencing something "different" than Broadway's musical norm should hurry over to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where "Fela!" opened Monday night.
The story's environment spills over into the auditorium, which is strung with Christmas lights and decked out with African masks, splashed in shades of green and fuchsia, and plastered with political slogans. On one side, a runway links the auditorium to a two-tier stage environment rudely backed by corrugated metal and housing a 10-member band. Moving lights restlessly cast their shafts into spectators' eyes.Production designer Maria Draghici creates the Nigerian nightclub where African songwriter and political rebel Fela Anikulapo-Kuti gathers his followers for a last-night party before he quits his country in 1978.
Haunted by the recent murder of his mother and persecuted by military thugs, the charismatic, blunt-smoking, multi-polygamous Fela tells us about his hypnotic Afrobeat music-making as it evolved and traces his turbulent times at home and abroad.
Video, frenzied dancing, fantasy sequences, freaky visuals and plenty of Fela's own raucous songs intermingle in the episodic narrative devised by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones to illuminate a singular life.
This tumultuous production staged and choreographed by Jones conjures up a vivid impression of a runaway country and an outlaw musician who tried to make sense of it. The non-traditional nature of this musical's format and score certainly reflects Fela's revolutionary ways.
For all of such artful chaos churning onstage, the story is relatively easy to follow thanks to occasionally projected supertitles and a fierce, transfixing performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela. (The role is so demanding that Kevin Mambo plays three out of eight weekly performances.)
Backed by that rowdy band, a 20-member ensemble shakes their rumps and the rafters as they madly perform amid the sweaty atmospherics of Jones' production. Garbed and treated like a goddess, Lillias White provides a mighty voice and an impressive presence as Fela's ill-fated activist mama.
The show will prove a stretch for conservative Broadway tastes, but anybody desiring something more adventurous than the same old musical stuff should check out "Fela!"
"Fela!" continues an open-end run at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.felaonbroadway.com.