What it lacks in conventionality, “Fela!” more than makes up for in unapologetic energy. This is a musical that coasts by on adrenaline and tireless performers. Playing through March 6, extended from what was supposed to be a four-day run, “Fela!” is on its second swing through Atlanta following its celebrated 2011 debut here.
Former Atlantan Duain Richmond plays the titular character, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician whose influence had an immeasurable effect on pop culture and political activism. (Adesola Osakalumi will portray Kuti at “select performances”; I saw only the version starring Richmond.) Celebrated for his Afrobeat, which joyfully brings together psychedelic rock, jazz, funk and West African rhythms, Kuti was also an activist who stood up to the Nigerian military regime. He died in 1997 at age 58, apparently of AIDS.
“Fela!” is set at the Afrika Shrine in Lagos, where the musician entertains the audience with his final concert, spinning monologues about how his career came together, his run-ins with authorities and other singular moments of his life. Even when the government would beat him and place him in solitary confinement, he stood fast and refused to leave the country as the regime wanted, using his music as a defense.
After debuting off-Broadway in 2008, “Fela!” moved to Broadway the next year, becoming a critical and commercial success. It won a trio of Tony Awards, including one for Bill T. Jones’ choreography.
Its strongest suit isn’t as a history lesson. As written by Jones (who also directs) and Jim Lewis, “Fela!” isn’t always easy to follow. Richmond’s thick accent makes some of the dialogue undecipherable. And, at well over two hours, the musical takes its time to tell the central character’s story. A tighter narrative could have made it pop even more.
But it’s undeniably empowering, especially Fela’s passionate decision to stay put and defy the government. The emotion that’s missing in the show’s early stages kicks in in Act II, when Kuti’s compound is raided. That sequence is inventively staged, with details of the action displayed behind the actors, including the horrific murder of Kuti’s mother Funmilayo, played by the magnetic Melanie Marshall. Her character is Kuti’s guiding force throughout the show.
When “Fela!” is content to be about just the music and the dancing, it’s most successful. A full band is onstage, complete with drums, guitars and trumpets, and often the musicians and dancers just let rip enthusiastically, especially in a 10-minute Act I segment where virtually all the players get a solo moment.
Technically, “Fela!” is peerless, with top-of-the-line choreography, lighting and costume design.
Richmond is a cousin of Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role on Broadway and received a Tony nomination. Like his cousin, he was a member of the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. Even when it’s hard to understand what he says, the actor oozes charisma, at one point teaching the audience how to dance. It’s a big task, because Richmond is onstage almost all the time, but he’s very comfortable in the role, as well as a sinewy dancer and singer.
Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child appears as Sandra Izsadore, who catches Fela’s attention and becomes one of his 27 wives. She is successful in portraying a character with backbone and presence, not content to fade into the background. As a whole, the rest of the cast is solid and versatile.