Exhilarating ‘Fela!’ is your ticket to the coolest club in Nigeria


Long-distance travel can be a slog these days, with crowded roads, airline delays and nagging guilt about how your trip contributes to climate change. All the better, then, that director Lili-Anne Brown’s exhilarating “Fela!” at Olney Theatre Center transports us near instantaneously to a far-off place of musicality, ebullient community and great courage.

That place is the Shrine, the Lagos club presided over by Fela Kuti, the famed Nigerian singer, composer, bandleader and activist, channeled in this production by the magnetic Duain Richmond. The Shrine in 1978 is the setting for “Fela!,” the musical that conjures its namesake’s world and story through his music and a book by Bill T. Jones (who directed the show on Broadway) and Jim Lewis.

Co-produced by Round House Theatre, Brown’s staging immerses us in the Shrine experience before Fela even enters, thanks to the spectacular 10-person onstage band led by music director S. Renee Clark. At the start of the show, the musicians take their seats within designer Arnel Sancianco’s set, a vivid impression of the Shrine complete with painted corrugated walls and languidly spinning ceiling fans. Here, the band launches into grooves rich with varied instrumental textures and stirring percussion — an effervescent taste of Afrobeat, the fusion of African musical styles and American funk, jazz and soul that Fela (1938-1997) pioneered.

The atmosphere of intimacy created by the infectious music only increases when Richmond’s Fela swaggers onstage and unleashes his charm, his showmanship tempered with brash humor and chattiness. At times he addresses us directly — for example, cajoling us to try out simple dance moves that suit Afrobeat. (Tip: Move your hips like the hands of a clock.) He segues regularly into musical numbers, and occasionally plays a saxophone.

He also recalls episodes from his eventful life, including his 1969 trip to the United States, where his lover Sandra Smith (Shantel Cribbs) wakens his political consciousness. After returning home to Nigeria, then in the grip of military rule, he becomes a high-profile dissident, using his music to denounce oppression, corruption and the heritage of colonialism, prompting authorities to harass and repeatedly imprison him. Making periodic appearances in this chronicle is his mother, Funmilayo, an activist and leader, played with haunting dignity by Melody A. Betts, whose singing is magnificent.

The terrific large ensemble portrays other people in Fela’s world, including government heavies, his numerous wives and the regulars at the Shrine. All the actors ace Breon Arzell’s choreography, which balances dynamic moves — swiveling hips, swooping hands, powerful bent-knee struts — with an aura of conviviality, letting virtuosic duos or trios melt in and out of the crowd. Adding vibrancy are Rueben D. Echoles’s costumes, which span from traditional African attire to 1970s Western hipster looks.

This staging is said to be the first full production of “Fela!” since the national tour wrapped in 2013. It was a win to land Richmond, who has previously played the title character, including as a Broadway alternate and on tour. But the accomplishment of this “Fela!” extends beyond its star, to its sound, design, dance, pacing and supporting turns, all synthesized into a show that does the Shrine proud.

Fela! Music and lyrics, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; book, Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones; additional music, Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown; lighting design, Sherrice Mojgani; sound, Matt Rowe; projections, Kelly Colburn. With Malachi Alexander, Bryan Archibald, Terrence J. Bennett, Simone Brown, Patrick Leonardo Casimir, Jyreika Guest, Bryan Jeffrey, Raquel Jennings, Emmanuel Kikoni, Raven Lorraine, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Themba Mkhatshwa, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Jantanies Thomas, Galen J. Williams, Jalisa Williams, Kanysha Williams and Shawna Williams. About 2.5 hours. Tickets: $47-$100. Through Aug. 13 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.


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