Fela!, which started as an Off-Broadway show in 2008 and has grown into an international sensation (and is now playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through April 15), follows the life of Afrobeat Nigerian legend and activist, Fela Kuti. The high-energy concert/musical/political play portrays Kuti in the days when his public performances at the legendary nightclub The Shrine were coming under fire by the Nigerian military.
Conceived, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones and produced by the likes of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z, Fela! is a celebration of music and empowerment. If you go, be prepared for toe-tapping beats, colorful sets, gyrating hips and the opportunity to get up on your feet to discover your inner “clock.” In the title role, Sahr Ngaujah recreates his Tony-nominated performance with blazing star quality, charisma and passion.
The show is structured to feel like we’re at one of Fela’s concerts at his Shrine around the late ’70s. There are long passages where the on-stage band just wails with horns, drums and thumping bass. This is far from your typical musical theater — which some will embrace and some may find frustrating. But it’s always fascinating.
At several points, the concert moves into the abstract, such as when we learn about the driving force Fela’s civil rights activist mother (the stoic and glorious voiced Melanie Marshall) played in his life. We also gain back story on impetus behind one of Fela’s most controversial albums, “Zombie,” which was a direct attack on the corrupt Nigerian government, and the violent response it received — including the horrific murder of his mother. The show concludes with an onstage protest, resulting in a powerful visual symbol that will stay long with you after the final Afrobeat. This is brave, bold theater.