The band and the actors are already warming up as the audience trickles into the Ahmanson Theatre for Fela!, Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones' rambunctious biographical cabaret, based on the life of Nigerian musician-superstar turned political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Under Jones' direction, women in fishnet stockings that go all the way up start casually gyrating their buttocks to a bongo drumbeat the way a baseball batter might rotate one arm before settling in over the plate.
The setting, loosely depicted in Marina Draghici's two-tiered set, is a nightclub called the Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, where Fela (the vivacious Sahr Ngaujah) will hold court, shouting out to the crowd to chant along.
Standing on high looms the Madonna-esque statue of Fela's mother, Funmilayo, who, via the afterlife, is his inspiration to hold firm to his goals, his undermining of European colonizers and the Nigerian dictators working mostly for themselves at the West's behest. In other words, Fela is a populist symbol of liberation, of protest movements fomented in Africa and echoed recently across the Middle East, and this week on the streets of Moscow. That statue of Fela's mother, a woman thrown to her death by government troops during a raid of Fela's compound, represents his moral compass, and here eventually comes to life (played by Melanie Marshall).
An American friend recently recalled, upon hearing of this month's death of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, of being in a Prague square packed with anti-Communist protesters when baton-wielding troops charged. Everybody, including my friend, ran as fast as their legs could carry them, she recalled, because they knew that if they didn't run they would be struck, and struck hard. It caused her a sobering reflection on the essence of courage, she said, yet it was impossible to predict that a mere three months later, Havel would be standing in that same square, leading a new political movement that would prevail against the Soviets, who had endorsed the attack.
Because oppression that appears intractable is perhaps not actually as cemented as it appears. And revolutionaries like Fela and Havel, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King gambled with prison and torture on that "perhaps."
Fela! is the musical story of that gamble. The surges of hope, linked to Fela's hypnotic Afrobeat compositions and rhythms, are what make the musical so inexorably seductive.
It is also inexorably reductive, like many of the other musicals about political figures and movements (Cabaret, Evita, Les Miserables), as though created from the impulse to cement a legend more than to examine the contradictions that bring superstars back to earth.
There's no mention, for example, of how, in the aftermath of his release from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida, Fela divorced his 12 remaining wives. "Marriage brings jealousy and selfishness," he said at the time. Was his multiple-divorce decision born of expedience or conviction? How does one reckon with being a soldier for social freedom while being married to a dozen women simultaneously? Whose jealousy and selfishness was he referring to? Also, there's no mention in the musical that his death in 1997 was from complications related to AIDS.
One only asks this question because the musical goes on for almost three hours, rolling through Fela's life, focusing on his talent, international stardom and personal courage, while bypassing the aspects that made him human. By hour three, the hang-spine gestures of Jones' choreography start to repeat, as do the appeals by Fela to rouse the crowd with the same beats we've heard half a dozen times by now.
I found myself feeling so impressed by the guts and the energy and the sassy sexuality, all woven into the brutality of international politics, that I wondered in the third hour why I was so inclined to keep checking my watch.
In the first hour, narrator Fela takes great care to connect his Afrobeat music to cultural and political influences: the religious chants taken from European interlopers melding into the indigenous drumbeats, with American jazz influences from John Coltrane to Frank Sinatra. And were it merely a concert, with a bit of a riff on the intersections of politics and music, it's doubtful the questions of redundance would have been relevant. The frame of a biography brings them on — a musical doesn't have to be complicated or deep if it doesn't place such emphasis on examining a character.
Still, like Evita and Les Miz, Fela! brings the excitement and mythology from another time and place thundering onto our stages, and that's no small feat. The musical is like a window slightly open, offering a glimpse, tempting you to go exploring another continent, and to dance a little.
FELA! | Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, additional lyrics by Jim Lewis, additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. | Through Jan. 22 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org