‘Fela!’ shakes rafters, moves spirits

Nigerian musical maverick Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s life story is thrilling, if not entirely clear, in the national touring production of “Fela!” onstage at the Curran Theatre.

Innovative dance maker Bill T. Jones directed, co-wrote the book and won a Tony Award for his choreography for the lively show, in which the main character serves up details from his own life story in an amazingly energetic, often captivating chat with the audience.

The setting is the Shrine, the club in Lagos, Nigeria, that Kuti set up as headquarters for his music and political work.

While theatergoers unfamiliar with Kuti’s legacy of social action may come away with only vague details of exactly how the man — who died at age 58 in 1997 — fought the establishment and changed history, they will feel his verve and spirit.

Yet his pioneering role in the rise of Afro-beat music comes out loud and clear in the ample, exciting production numbers, featuring an extraordinarily gifted, athletic ensemble performing to Kuti’s music and lyrics.

Still, the undeniable star of the show is the Tony-nominated Sahr Ngaujah as the title character.

From his first address to the audience to the closing portion in which he mourns his mother’s death, Ngaujah as Kuti is in command, connecting with the audience — jesting, jousting, teasing, challenging, explaining and dancing.

Projections of real-life images from Kuti’s life, including a portrait of his mother as a young woman in a prominent upstage position, provide an informative, if sometimes confusing, backdrop that’s almost as lively as the infectious movement, music and conversation.

Color abounds, particularly in costumes by Marina Draghici made with fabric with gorgeous prints.

While it may not work as a history lesson, “Fela!,” with its wild abandon, humor and musicality, presents an exciting picture of an important international personality.

 

THEATER REVIEW

Fela!

– Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco

– When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; closes Dec. 11

– Tickets: $31 to $100

– Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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