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review by: Ali Goldstein
You know when you find your seats for a musical compelled to include an exclamation point in its title, that it will be higher-energy than most — and that you won’t be staying in your seats for long.
Fela!, the latest production at Shakespeare Theatre Company (running now through October 9th), produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, tells the story of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti as he finds his voice amid seventies-era Nigeria and its bloody power struggles. As Fela untangles his Nigerian identity in his music — comparing the Nigeria he hopes for with the one that pounds against the walls of his dance club — his music brings him to the vortex of a political maelstrom.
The true heartbeat of this musical is the music itself, charging the show with electricity and adding the exclamation point to the title. For an evening, you’re invited inside Fela’s dance club “The Shrine,” where talented musicians chorus above the politics and dancers explode across the stage in flashes of color, music sparking out of their every movement. By telling his story through such joyous music, Fela wraps you in the electric web of his life if only to say: take my music and create hope. The story quickly becomes yours and everybody else’s humming the beats on the metro ride home, inspired by Fela’s capacity to create music of such infectious joy amid such heartbreaking instability.
“It’s time to leave your shyness at the door,” Fela says as the musical opens and he invites you into his club. “Don’t bring that shit into The Shrine.” If your idea of the perfect musical is watching politely in a darkened theater and then clapping at the end, this show will stretch you. You are both in the audience for the musical Fela! and in the audience at The Shrine, with Fela your charismatic narrator for the night. This means dancers bound from every corner of the theater and Fela encourages you to get on your feet as he teaches you how to dance.
Lights on and audience members shaking their hips, it’s easy to forget that you aren’t actually at The Shrine. Sahr Ngaujah, the Tony-award nominated actor behind Fela, doesn’t just play the Nigerian musician: he embodies him. Dressed in a ’70s blue suit, Ngaujah is simply electric on stage as he switches between acting out scenes from Fela’s life and corralling the audience’s enthusiasm.
It’s a little bit jarring how precisely the music, acting, and dancing combine to create this alternative universe because it forces you to question your role amid it all. When Fela steps on stage as the narrator, it’s as if it’s only to remind you that you’re still just the audience. This ambiguity, however, is part of the musical’s power. In a story that questions the relationship between music and politics, you, as the audience, are at the heart of the conflict. If music’s a political tool, then the listener must somehow become implicated. And the fact that you’re so swept up in Fela’s story and rhythms that you forget for a moment where you are only hits this home: you are a part of this story unfolding across the stage.
The show’s gorgeous set simultaneously echoes the insular oasis of music the performers create — and the suffocation of hiding away in art. The walls of The Shrine re-create a stage, complete with a live band playing in the corner. Until the second act of the show, Fela makes reference to Nigeria’s political turmoil but keeps that outside world resolutely outside. In this light, the staging echoes Fela’s central dilemma of what he wants his art to accomplish.
Fela’s tone is deceptively lighthearted, even to the point of joking about the military policemen the dancers call mosquitoes. In several scenes, however, the music and dancing are so vibrant that their aim seems to be breaking down the walls of the club. Fela and his dancers constantly grapple with these walls and the limitations of their art, escaping into the aisles of the theater if only to run back on stage.

With explosive dancing, infectious music, and acting you can forget is acting, Fela! doesn’t let you stay content just to watch and listen. The message is clear: the hope of music only becomes powerful when you participate in its chorus and take it home with you. Fela! is all shades of joyous, but there just aren’t enough synonyms for “exuberant” to do this show justice. This will have to suffice instead: please go see this show.