REVIEW by Willard Manus

Registering ten on the theatrical Richter Scale, FELA! is an earthquake of a musical about the life and wild times of the late Nigerian singer/showman, Fela Kuti. After flirting with jazz and pop in London and New York, he found his groove in 1960's L.A. when he was radicalized by the Black Power movement. He took his new-found social consciousness back to Lagos and combined it with elements of funk, rock, rap and pulsing African rhythms (powered by virtuousic drumming). His name for this new kind of music was Afrobeat and, beginning in the mid 1970s, you could hear it every night in the club he started, The Shrine.

With Fela on tenor sax and singing and dancing pyrotechnically in front of a booty-shakin', multi-voiced ensemble, The Shrine became wildly popular with young Nigerians. They packed the place every night even though it was located in a grim part of town and was often the target of the police who, on orders from Nigeria's military government, used their clubs to break open many a skull.

Fela himself was arrested over 200 times, not only for openly smoking igbo (grass) and drinking moonshine, but for his anti-authoritarian songs, songs that attacked his country's brutal and corrupt leaders, the generals who were--and still are--on the payroll of multinationals like Exxon, Halliburton, BP and Shell. Fela also poked fun at his audience, engaged in give and take with them, lectured them about Nigerian history, the impact of slavery and imperialism--"What'd the British ever give us but Jesus and gonorrhea?"

Above all, he tried to persuade his adoring fans to be proud of their Yoruba roots, their Africanness. He also invoked the militant spirit of his mother Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall), who was killed during a raid on The Shrine.

All this history is brought to life in FELA!, thanks to Sahr Ngaujah (alternate Adesola Osakalumi), who channels Fela with dazzling verisimilitude, infusing the proceedings with his fabulous gifts as singer, dancer and M.C. Ismael Kouyate (from a leading theatrical family in Guinea, West Africa) brings the same kind of pizzazz to the role of Fela's sidekick and fellow-singer, Ismael.

Paulette Ivory, another Brit (FELA! had a post-Broadway run at the National Theatre of Great Britain), is outstanding as Sandra, an American black nationalist; ditto Rassan-Elijah "Talu" Green as Djembe-"Mustafa" and Gelan Lambert as the tap-dancer, Egungun.

FELA! was directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, written by Jones and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Fela (backed up by a 17-person ensemble and a 10-person band). The FELA! company also benefits greatly from Marina Draghici's kaleidoscopic set and costumes, and from Robert Wierzel's fast-changing lighting scheme.

Peter Nigrini's video projections and Cookie Jordan's outrageous wig, hair and make-up design also help to make FELA! the eye-catching, freedom-loving, soul-pleasing musical it is.

(Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-628-2772, centertheatregroup.org)