LAGOS, Nigeria — The Broadway cast of “Fela” introduced Afrobeat superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to hundreds of thousands of new American fans. Now the show’s stars are facing their toughest critics yet: Nigerians in this megacity who know his lyrics by heart and consider him a national icon.
On Thursday night, the ensemble cast from the Tony award-winning “Fela!” performed at the concert space here run by his son Femi and daughter Yeni. The New Afrika Shrine is a relocated version of the place where their father once played, which later burned down.
Hundreds of devoted fans gathered on white plastic lawn chairs under the breeze of spinning ceiling fans in this steamy warehouse-like club, excitedly filming the production on their camera phones as the smell of marijuana wafted through the air.
“It means more to us than you can possibly imagine to be here and share this moment with you,” Sahr Ngaujah, who earned a Tony nomination in the title role on Broadway, told the crowd. He also wished the Nigerians luck with the presidential election set for Saturday.
The performance earned rave reviews from Kuti’s children, and Femi Kuti joined the cast onstage on his saxophone for an encore. “Now that you have been to the Shrine, I’m sure my father has blessed you,” he said.
Thursday night’s event comes just days before producers launch eight shows here at a hotel in a posh area of Lagos. Tickets will range from $32 to $225 per person – a steep price for many. Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria remains strangled by endemic poverty, with more than 80 percent of people earning less than $2 a day.
Fela is internationally recognized as the founder of Afrobeat. He created a commune in the heart of Lagos, where he lived with his 27 wives before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1997. Eccentric as he was, Fela was beloved because he spoke out against the military dictators who plundered his oil-rich nation.
Fela suffered through numerous arrests, and his mother died following an attack by soldiers. Fela later carried her casket to the presidential estate in Lagos – a bold protest in a country cowed largely into silence by military rule.
The Broadway show that ended in January after a 14-month run introduced Fela to a new generation of fans abroad. Cast members said Thursday they were honored and humbled to perform in Nigeria before Fela’s fan base, but acknowledged it would be impossible to please all his fans.
Ife Ugbebor, 25, of Ibadan, applauded the dancing and said that aside from some pronunciation and intonation issues the cast was able to replicate Fela’s energy onstage.
“Fela Kuti is an inspiration to all black youth who desire to learn more about their history,” Ugbebor said. “I want to commend their efforts. I actually think they did their best.”
Earlier Thursday, the cast also deflected criticism that none of the performers in the production are themselves Nigerian, though there was a Nigerian understudy on Broadway.
Producer Stephen Hendel described the show appearing in Lagos from April 20-25 as “a musical interpretation of his legacy.”
“I think the show has an authenticity that the audience will embrace,” Hendel told Nigerian journalists Thursday.
“Fela!” originally opened off-Broadway and won raves for its energetic dancing and infectious music – all culled from Fela’s catalog. The Broadway show, co-produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, attracted the fans including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna.
“Fela!” won Tonys for Bill T. Jones’ choreography, best costume design of a musical and best sound design of a musical. It was also nominated for best musical and actor.
Organizers had previously shown a prerecorded performance by the National Theatre in London on large-screen television at Lagos’ New Afrika Shrine, but Thursday’s concert version marked the first time the cast shared their show in person in Nigeria.