Sahr Ngaujah is wonderful in the title role, his seemingly boundless energy – both with the cast and when interacting with the audience – driving the show forwards. Ngaujah captures the charisma that brought the musician and activist such adoration and respect in the turbulent Nigeria of the 1970s.
The show’s conceit – a final concert by Kuti and his band at
The Shrine in Lagos – works beautifully as a framing device, even if the
moments where the music drops and Kuti is left to philosophise over his future
choices appear low-energy in comparison with the rousing dance numbers. This
contrast is far more successfully handled in the scene in which the musician’s
compound undergoes a devastating attack by Nigerian government forces. This is the episode at the heart of the story and the stillness of the dancers compared with their previous vitality, alongside some sensitively presented projections, makes for very affecting storytelling.
It is to
the credit of director and choreographer Bill T Jones that the show does not
shy away from the challenging aspects of Kuti’s story. It would have been easy
to make Fela! a purely joyful concert show, but brave
choices have been made and the piece is the stronger for it, offering lows as well as highs to paint a picture of a life and a time with plenty for us to learn from.