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Theater Review: 'Fela' -- 3.5 stars

Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory in scene from

Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory in scene from "Fela" (Tristram Kenton) Credit: Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory in scene from "Fela" (Tristram Kenton)

3.5 stars

Four years ago, Bill T. Jones' audacious musical "Fela!," a truly explosive tribute to Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, opened Off-Broadway and immediately caught on with theatergoers, modern dance enthusiasts, political junkies and even some celebrities.

It eventually moved to Broadway, with Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith serving as above-the-title producers, where it had a decent yearlong run. Now in the midst of a national tour, the show has come back to town for a short encore.

Fela gained fame in the late 20th century as a Nigerian political rebel and bandleader. In addition to unsuccessfully running for president, Fela was notorious for having no less than 27 wives.

"Fela!" is imagined as a 1977 concert at his nightclub that is intended to be his farewell to Nigeria after the brutal attacks that he and his family suffered at the hands of government soldiers.

As the audience enters, the band is already playing. Soon enough, a tribe engages in free form dance followed by Fela, their leader.

It's not hard to spot some differences between the original Broadway production - which featured countless screens that filled the walls of the theater - and the touring show, which is far less visually elaborate.

But these minor quibbles aside, the show remains an extremely vibrant celebration of Afrobeat, Fela's style of music that mixed jazz, funk and African rhythms. Director-choreographer Jones provides full-bodied choreography that perfectly matches Kuti's music.

Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates in the title role with Adesola Osakalumi, hardly ever leaves the stage. He displays an animalistic presence, along with the charisma to command a loyal army of followers.

If you go: "Fela!" plays at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre through Aug. 4. 302 W. 45th St.,, 212-239-6200.

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