Fela! boasts hit songs, thrilling dances and a riveting story. But this Broadway success, which runs through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, is also radically different from other musicals. The show, which opened Tuesday evening, brings us inside the seething, incandescent and precarious life of the Nigerian musical and political revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. That it succeeds in captivating American audiences with a world that would seem to be utterly foreign and disturbing to them is part of its achievement. Fela! does not lecture. But like the life of its subject, the show is celebratory and tragic in equal measure.
The show is set at an imaginary late ’70s concert at the Shrine, the nightclub inside Fela’s Lagos compound. Adesola Osakalumi gives a tour de force performance in the title role, centering the two-plus-hour show with riveting power and charisma. A member of the original Broadway cast, Osakalumi is imperious, sensual and sharply sarcastic, as compelling and confident as a real pop star. He commands the audience like one as well, mocking and coaxing them, bringing the crowd at the Sanford Ziff Ballet Opera House to their feet to pump their hips with the dancers or sing back to him. You’re in Fela’s world here.
Instead of using dramatic scenes played out by multiple characters, director and choreographer Bill T. Jones brings that world to life by interweaving dancing and music — played by Antibalas, the Brooklyn band that is a top interpreter of Fela’s music — with Osakalumi telling of Fela’s music, his political awakening, his African spirituality, the brutal Nigerian dictatorship against which he struggled. Antibalas and an exhilarating ensemble of fiercely committed dancer/singers make the music and dancing so terrifically vivid and expressive, we don’t ever miss traditional storytelling drama.
Early highlights include drummer Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green centering a wild improvisatory dance jam and a deliriously sensual lesson in pelvic-driven timekeeping. The women who play the wives and dancers Fela called his “Queens” are as regal as the word implies, commanding the stage with proud sexuality and startlingly articulated hips. Miami-raised Gelan Lambert’s explosive bursts of tap dancing give an exhilarating rhythmic and physical accent to the show. Marina Draghici’s flamboyant Afro-contemporary costumes and Peter Nigrini’s flowing projections of film from Nigeria, song lyrics and images intensify the dizzying, dreamlike atmosphere.
One of the few weak points is former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, as Sandra, the American woman and Black Panther who raised Fela’s political consciousness during an early affair. Williams is beautiful but stiff, with less presence than the dancers, and her voice is thin and nasal — especially compared to the magnificently rich and luminous singing of Melanie Marshall, as the spirit of Fela’s mother Funmilayo.
The vivid life of Fela! takes on a frightening edge as the show progresses. A lovely song about water is echoed later in a scene of water torture, and the representation of the brutal invasion of Fela’s compound by Nigerian forces who kill his mother is horrifying. There’s no happy romantic resolution here. But there is inspiration. The real Fela may be dead, but his music and his story live on in this show. “We’re not going anywhere,” Osakalumi says at the end. “We’re going to be right here.”