Sahr Ngaujah is definitely a candidate to claim the title of "hardest-working-man in show business." Whether singing, dancing, beat-boxing or playing a mean saxophone, Ngaujah dazzles throughout as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the title character of the exuberantly colorful 2009 Broadway musical "Fela!"
Ngaujah expertly commands the stage with his humorous and defiant addresses to the audience and definitely channels the late Afrobeat music pioneer and Nigerian artist and activist. It's such an exhausting performance that Ngaujah alternates with Adesola Osakalumi in the title role at certain performances of "Fela!," which continues in an extended run at Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, April 15.
"Fela!"★ ★ ★
Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago; 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee April 11), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening show April 8); through April 15
Running time: About two hours and 40 minutes with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages
Rating: For mature audiences: profanity, drug use, strong sexuality, descriptions of rape and torture
Audiences should be forewarned that "Fela!" is not a show where you just sit back and passively watch. Ngaujah as Kuti demands that you clap, chant and shake your backside at key points during the show. Some may find this interactivity to be fun and refreshing, while others might be embarrassed to participate.
Award-winning director/choreographer Bill T. Jones ("Spring Awakening") structures "Fela!" as a farewell performance given by Kuti and his Afrobeat band at his concert venue known as the "Afrika Shrine" in Lagos, Nigeria. The concert takes place months after the Nigerian military's 1977 violent raid and destruction of Kuti's commune and recording studio that also resulted in the death of his activist mother, Funmilayo, who appears in the show as a guiding spirit (Melanie Marshall amazes as Funmilayo with her regal bearing and high-flying vocal range).
Jones also structures "Fela!" as a retrospective on Kuti's life to show how he shaped his global musical influences and learned about Black Power from the American activist Sandra Smith (a beautifully sung and performed turn by Paulette Ivory). Jones and company build a show that not only shines an energetic and entertaining light on Kuti's worldwide fame, but also seeks to impart Kuti's blend of activism and music to speak to issues affecting the world and America today. (The genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision about campaign financing and the recent shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin were among a few things referenced in the show's finale).
Jones and his "Fela!" production team (particularly lighting designer Robert Wierzel and projection designer Peter Nigrini) create a vibrant and pulsating multimedia-filled show that puts the emphasis on entertainment, sometimes at the expense of glossed-over storytelling (though some of the more controversial aspects of Kuti's unapologetically hedonistic lifestyle like his open advocacy of drug use and polygamy are not skirted). Also, you do wish that the women's ensemble might have had a more representative voice in the show instead of functioning largely as gyrating background dancers oozing sexuality in Marina Draghici's skimpy ethnic costumes.
Though "Fela!" might not be everyone's cup of tea when it comes to their idea of what a Broadway musical should be, there's no denying the dynamic craft and choreographic skill that went into this show celebrating Kuti and his impact on world music in the 20th Century. And you can't help but be amazed by a commanding performer like Ngaujah as Kuti, who not only can do it all, but definitely gives his all in performance.