Directed and, just as crucially, choreographed by modern dance impresario Bill T. Jones, “Fela!” is galvanized by the hypnotic ministrations of Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role of the entertainer known as Fela off-Broadway and then went on to play it for most of the show’s 463-performance Broadway run. He and the show now embark on a national tour, which had its official opening Friday night at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.
Although burdened by a sense of self-righteousness bordering on religious — at nearly three hours, it’s way too long — “Fela!” is a madly physical, prodigiously exuberant bio-musical, infused with African brio and outrage. (Fela died in 1997 at 58.) The sound of Afrobeat, produced on conga drums, saxophones, trumpets and guitars, functions as electroshock for the soul, and it is conveyed here with a mellow confidence by conductor Aaron Johnson and his nine-man onstage band.
The dancing, as you might expect of the gifted Jones, who brought a similar virtuosity to the movement of the Tony-winning “Spring Awakening,” has the magical intensity and the suaveness to inspire the squarest pegs in the audience to feel as if they might somehow shimmy into the coolest holes. (One may want to know Fela gets the audience up on its feet for a lesson in Nigerian hip action.) Jones’s gestural design is virtually nonstop, breathless and executed most memorably by a corps of eight women — Fela’s romantic entourage, apparently — dressed by Marina Draghici in what might be described as contemporary mock-tribal.
At center stage about 95 percent of the evening is the inexhaustible Ngaujah, who evokes Fela in all his charismatic, self-regarding, bravely outspoken, monomaniacal glory. (Not for nothing does he call the Lagos theater in which he performed The Shrine.) Jones presents Fela’s story in the form of a concert; the production’s conceit is that this is Fela’s last show in Nigeria in or about 1977, some months after thugs have murdered his publicly revered mother, Funmilayo (gorgeously throated Melanie Marshall).
“Fela!” is an account of how a hedonistic entertainer (Gandhi, he isn’t) becomes a nation’s political conscience. Ngaujah, wearing embroidered track suits and rakishly sporting a cigarette, a la his idol, Frank Sinatra, regales us with tales of his practical musical education, of how Afrobeat emerged out of his love of jazz and the rhythms of Cuban music. His activist bent, meanwhile, fostered by resentment of British colonialism — “What did we get in return?” he asks. “Gonorrhea and Jesus!” — is cemented in the United States, where he’s exposed to black feminism and nationalism.