Fela! possesses a contagious power, a sense of uplift capable of eroding the defences of even the most defiant sceptics. As an experience it’s incredibly life-affirming, able to make middle-aged men start unwittingly rotating their hips within minutes.
The production, which comes to Sadler’s Wells after remarkably successful runs on Broadway (where it won several Tony awards) and at the National Theatre in London, boasts a team of celebrity producers, including Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. However none of the hype surrounding the show quite prepares one for its energy. Audience are asked to “leave their shy at the door” as they are transported to 1970s Lagos, where they become participants in an increasingly interactive and immersive experience. The atmosphere is more like that of a festival than a piece of musical theatre.
The production is built around the songs of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian musician and activist who influenced both the political and musical landscapes of West Africa and beyond, often in the face of great personal danger. As one of the pioneers of ‘Afrobeat’, Fela used his talents to fight corruption and social injustice, founding a free-spirited commune called the Kalakuta Republic. In 1978, he played what was to be his final gig at ‘The Shrine’, the commune’s musical venue, and it is the re-enactment of this concert that forms the main body of the production.
Fela is played by the remarkably gifted Sahr Ngaujah, who has played the role both in New York and London. Ngaujah has an exuberant stage presence, an ineffable joie de vivre. He improvises freely when engaging with the audience, and after all this time his performance still manages to come across as fresh; his powerful voice is matched by his mellifluous sax playing and excellent comic timing.
The music, as one would expect, is captivating; the band, modelled on Fela’s ‘Africa ’70’, are of the very highest calibre. The Afrobeat dancing, choreographed by the award-winning Bill T Jones, is at times hypnotic. Neither of these things are that surprising, but the show is also often incredibly funny, especially so when Fela interacts with the audience.
The buoyant first half stands in stark contrast to the harrowing scenes that follow; the tragedies which befall the Kalakuta Republic are handled in a suitably sensitive manner. Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, played with phenomenal grace by Melanie Marshall, takes centre stage at this point, as she guides her forlorn son through the tribulations of his political life. The production covers a lot of ground, addressing Africa’s struggle to free itself from a legacy of oppression and the effects of colonialism, which, as Fela jokes early on in the evening, left the continent with two things: gonorrhoea and Jesus. There are also several references to contemporary political issues, such as the phone-hacking scandal and the imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, as the performers urge the audience to take inspiration from Fela’s activism and combat injustice in all its various forms.
The cast, many of who reprise their roles from previous productions, are almost flawless in their respective functions. Fela’s posse of dancers, the ‘Queens’, are fascinating to watch and the physical feats they are capable of are, at times, nothing short of breathtaking. But what’s most notable about the show is the way it breaks down audience restraint, the way it continually involves and engages with those watching. There is no room for audience reticence here and the production creates an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to respond vocally and physically to the spectacle on stage. At the end, an exhausted and sweating Fela enquires of the audience: “So, do you love Afrobeat?”. There is no hesitation: the crowd unanimously respond with a resounding: “Yeah”.