This intermittently startling, vigorously compiled but musically monotonous American import of an Afrobeat concert - the original off-Broadway show opened in 2008 and has played on Broadway for just over a year - comes complete with its original star, the eager but uncharismatic Sahr Ngaujah, a saxophone-dominated onstage blaring band of 12, and co-producing credits for Jay-Z and Will Smith.
So, what’s it doing at the National, exactly, apart from drawing a new audience, hopefully, for a couple of months? The story of Nigerian musician, hedonist and self-styled radical Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is haphazardly told, mostly in first person narration, in an Olivier auditorium packed to the max with posters, slogans, projected song lyrics and historical film footage, some of it genuinely disturbing when the military storm Fela’s compound and throw his mother out the window.
First, Fela welcomes us to his club, the Shrine, in Lagos, announcing his final concert. A slow start elides into an explanation of Afrobeat’s roots: in drumming, jazz, Cuban sounds and James Brown funk. Having put it all together, Fela invites the audience to stand up and dance “the clock” - going round and round, swivelling on their hips and pelvises.
Fela relates his politicisation in America by his Black Power girlfriend Sandra (an outstanding Paulette Ivory) and soft-pedals his own horrendous super ego (the show would have been infinitely better if he hadn’t) by puffing sweetly on a big spliff; leading a pre-post-show audience Q and A on criminal records; and introducing his harem (in truth, he married 27 women on the same day and died of AIDS in 1997) of nine wonderfully exotic and sexy dancing “Queens”, easily the most enjoyable element in Bill T Jones’ full-on, indiscriminate production.
The chronology is twisted so that Fela can become stronger after the assault on his compound and enter the spiritual world in search of his mother’s blessing, which is blisteringly delivered as a call to arms by Melanie Marshall from beyond the grave. The show plays its strongest suit in an endless (naturally) parade of coffins including those of the murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, an unidentified great grandma, Doubt, Fear, and that despised old soldier, General Well-Being, a woolly but also deeply moving finale.
Frank Loesser once wrote a charming musical called The Most Happy Fella; this show’s hero is a most unhappy Fela, though you could easily imagine him “standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by” …until he pounced, preached, got down and got busy. Groovy, baby? Maybe.