What can you say about a composer, musician, multi-instrumentalist, civil rights campaigner, human rights activist and politician? Inspirational seems a little inadequate but is right on the money to describe FELA!, recently opened at London's National Theatre, having transferred from Broadway with three Tony Awards, an Obie for our devoted lead, and rave reviews, including one from the New York Times' Ben Brantley proudly proclaiming that "There has never been anything like this."
Which may or may not be true. Hair, recently closed after a West End revival had Sixties audiences dancing in the aisles (calm down, it was part of the plot) had similar superlatives thrown at it - but that is not to deny that FELA! is a magical musical experience.
Fela Kuti lived a colourful life, made music that shook the world and a political activism that resulted in his very own communal compound within Nigeria called Kalakuta Republic. There is his arrest, persecution, the murder of his mother by soldiers in a midnight raid and dancing - lots and lots of dancing. Fela, played extraordinarily by Sahr Ngaujah who also sings, dances and plays the trumpet and saxophone, has a charisma that it is near impossible to shake yourself from, especially with an Afrobeat soundtrack that is as visually and aurally affective as it is infectious.
This is a musical revolution, an onslaught that breaks traditional barriers between the stage and audience. Turner Prize and Cannes-winner Steve McQueen is following up his debut feature Hunger with a big-screen adaptation of FELA! for release next year. I find it very difficult to find a true definition of the word 'sensational', but I know it when I see it and this is it.
FELA! opened at the National Theatre, London, on 17 November and will be broadcast live to selected cinemas nationwide on 13 January 2011.