Fela Kuti, the pioneering Nigerian Afrobeat musician, activist, presidential candidate and polygamist (at one point, he had 28 wives) seems an unlikely subject for an American musical. But that's exactly why the show Fela!, based on a biography of Kuti's tumultuous life, is so special. Like the musician himself, it's a brazen affront to politeness, rife with profanity, simulated pot-smoking, political rabble-rousing and harrowing violence. Moreover, it refuses to adhere to any conventions or trends, repeatedly broadening the definition of what a Broadway musical can be.
The long-awaited tour of this Tony-nominated show opened at the Arsht Center last night for a short run (it plays through Sunday), where the Ziff Opera House stage has been transformed into his personal nightclub, called The Shrine -- a two-story industrial-style venue with graffitied walls. Fela (Adesola Osakalumi or Duain Richmond, depending on the night) tells us, his rapt audience, that it will be his final performance in the Shrine, before sharing his life story as well as breaking down the essence of Afrobeat music.
Fela's narrative is chronological, sort of; it begins with his parents and grandparents, and moves on to his education, trips abroad, the development of his music and political views, and his subsequent fame and the governmental blowback, each theme illustrated by a killer Kuti tune. But Fela! is far from a predictable show. It's defined by its starts, stops, and interruptions, the show's form mirroring the spastic spontaneity of his music.
It's the kind of show where anything proves possible -- where, like an evangelist, Fela makes an entire Broadway audience stand on its feet and shake its collective moneymaker in an instructive aside about African dance. Or when, later, he can spend several minutes of the show talking about defecation, specifically the critical decision to shit or not to shit, lest the soldiers holding him captive detect the drugs in his system through his poo. It's a funny sequence, played for all its comedic potential by Osakalumi, who proves to be a dynamic actor, singer and dancer.
There are other exceptional performances in the show too, particularly from Melanie Marshall as Fela's mother, who delivers a mesmerizing aria at the end of the show that will bring the house down. But it's the overall ambience, not the star wattage of specific performers, that defines the show's infectious atmosphere. It's the onstage band and peerless ensemble of 13 dancers, clad in beautifully traditional Nigerian garb and moving in ways nobody has moved on Broadway before.
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The second act feels overlong and a little too scattered, but the movement, music, lighting and costumes remain compelling through the final curtain. It presents an offbeat history lesson of a man, his music, his country and his politics, and it continually challenges us. It should be a model for a new kind of Broadway entertainment.
Fela! runs through Sunday. Tickets cost $26 - $56. Visit arshtcenter.org.