The musical chronicle of the life of the extraordinary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti — Fela! — has received rave reviews and met with significant commercial success. It was with a sense of excitement mixed with curiosity, therefore, that I went to see the show at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. The stage set evokes Fela Kuti’s final concert at The Shrine in Lagos in the summer of 1978 and weaves together a history of his life with a series of set-piece music and dance routines. The central performance from Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and many of the supporting cast are excellent but something is lacking.
The difficulty with placing Fela Kuti at the centre of the musical, however, is that we experience little sense of emotional depth or insight beyond a series of events. A better narrative structure might have evolved around the life of an ordinary Lagos family with the music forming a dramatic backdrop. At times the musical felt like a compressed history of modern Nigeria: details of atrocities committed by the military were projected onto a screen at the back of the theatre and were at first met with laughter from the audience then hushed embarrassment. The backing band, though good, lacked the dramatic intensity of the original music and were not loud enough. I longed to hear Fela Kuti’s own voice and be immersed in the soundscapes of the real music.
So I left the show with mixed feelings: a sense that the production had not really revealed much about Nigeria or the music and that in trying to inform and entertain at the same time the essence of Lagos was strangely absent. The atmosphere felt oddly flat.