Arts Desk

Fela!: A Musical That Actually Moves

Fela!, the Broadway musical about a prominent Nigerian musician created by a prominent U.S. choreographer, arrived at Sidney Harman Hall this week. Arts Desk theater critic Bob Mondello will have review next week. I’m just here to report that the dancing is, well, awesome.

The touring production is more than simply an evening’s entertainment, thanks to glorious music, compelling acting, and a versatile and effective set. But the dancing provides the energy that keeps the show moving relentlessly forward, and—unlike so many musicals in which the physicality is insipid and half-hearted—it utterly satisfies.

The show’s creator is Bill T. Jones, the renowned New York-based choreographer who most recently brought his tribute to Abraham Lincoln to the Kennedy Center. That piece was an abstract modern-dance performance, which means that the dancing was front and center and there was no need to tell a story. Fela!, of course, is totally different: It's a narrative about the life of Nigerian Afro-beat singer Fela Kuti.

The dance is never secondary. Instead, it’s always there, in the form of the eight women and four men who make up the chorus. They’re onstage for the majority of the show, full of energy and moving in unison. Most of the movement has a West African flavor, with arms and legs constantly flying while torsos swivel and dip. But look closely: Ballet, jazz, modern, breakdancing, and tap all make cameos.

Just about every dance scene satisfies, and a constant change of costumes keeps things interesting. Possibly the most compelling part is Fela’s trip to the underworld, where the dancers—clad all in white—hurriedly swirl, fly, and hover, simulating chaos and overwhelming viewers’ senses.

Jones has achieved something of an optical illusion. Upon close examination, the choreography doesn’t appear all that interesting, and though the female dancers are charming, none in particular stand out. The men are considerably more impressive, in terms of technique and strength, but they have limited stage time.

And yet, none of that really comes across in the big picture, when the music is pumping, the onstage crowd is jumping, and Fela (Sahr Ngaujah and Adesola Osakalumiu on different nights) has the audience in his grip. Then, all the elements come together like a spell that's impossible to shake.

Fela! runs through Oct. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall. Tickets are $25-$120. For more information, visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Photo by Monique Carboni

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