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Chicago by John Olson

Fela!
Oriental Theatre

Also see John's review of Ten Chimneys

With this road company of Fela!, Broadway in Chicago has now brought us all but one of the new musicals that opened during the 2009-10 Broadway season—a season so eclectic the Tony Award nominators had trouble filling out their award categories. Was Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away really a musical or a dance concert? What's American Idiot—a rock concert or rock opera or what? The 2009-2010 season's Best Musical winner Memphis may have gotten some votes based on its fitting the traditional mold more closely than its competitors, but even Memphis departs from the norm a bit with its R&B score and flawed hero. If the Broadway "brand," and by extension the brand of the many tour series across the country called "Broadway in [name of city]," still evokes expectations of book musicals with middle-of-the road pop songs, maybe it's time to acknowledge that the product is changing and the brand is evolving into something different. One would hope such a redefinition of the brand would expand its total audience but not shatter it into various smaller niches, because the benefit of a ready-made, defined audience is that we will sometimes be exposed to things we might otherwise pass over.

Fela! is such a show. Many of us were certainly unaware of its subject—the Nigerian singer-composer-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who through his recordings of over 70 recorded albums of his Afrobeat music, mobilized opposition to the oppressive military government of Nigeria. After a 1969 sojourn in the United States, where Kuti met the American civil rights activist Sandra Isidore who introduced him to philosophies of Afrocentrism, he returned to Nigeria and began incorporating messages of opposition to that country's ruling elite into his songs. He established a compound in the capital city of Lagos that included a recording studio and private nightclub called The Shrine, where his fans and followers would revel. Fela! is set up as one night in The Shrine, with Fela and his ten-piece band performing music and Fela narrating the key events in his life. In that structure, Fela! bears resemblance to the musical Passing Strange, but that structure seemed more of device in that musical. In Fela!, director/choreographer Bill T. Jones truly gives us a sense of attending a night at The Shrine. Fela invites interaction with the real audience and house lights are turned up at points to facilitate that. The ensemble convincingly portrays nightclub patrons. There are flashback narrative scenes, to provide Fela's back story, but they are minimal and have little dialogue.

Jones, who collaborated with Jim Lewis on Fela!'s book, has given us an eyeful for this two hour and forty-five minute show. His dances seem an authentic combination of African traditions and contemporary nightclubs. Though not as rich in the sorts of stunning acrobatics we see from dance-heavy shows, the choreography has vitality and brings us into the emotions of the characters. The unit set by Martina Draghici is paired with striking projections by Peter Nigrini that establish place and time and at times helpfully provide supertitles for song lyrics. There are two large projection screens at both sides of the proscenium as well as one long horizontal screen upstage. Most often the screens are displaying three different sets of content. When combined with all the movement on stage, it's sometimes hard to know where to focus, but it somehow all contributes, even if peripherally, to a sense of time and place and an understanding of the narrative.

At the center of all this is Sahr Ngaujah, repeating his Broadway role as Fela with every bit of the charisma his subject must have had. He sings, he plays the sax; he moves and narrates all with an amazing energy. He's center stage for most of the show and you never tire of watching him. He gives Fela the sort of cockiness one would need to stand up to the powerful as dramatically as his subject did, while retaining a seductive likeability that shows how Fela would have attracted so many followers. The other standouts in the cast include Melanie Marshall as Fela's mother Funmilayo. She has only a few big moments in the show, but sings her two songs (and a reprise) with great power and authority. Funmilayo, who was a teacher and leader of the Nigerian women's movement, as a character is a sort of moral force whose presence is felt even when she's not on stage. Her influence over Fela's commitment to justice is established through Marshall's powerful presence. The other strong female influence on Fela (a man who had multiple wives) was Sandra Isidore, played here with authority by Paulette Ivory.

The Nigerian police ultimately raided Fela's compound, and the raid is shown on stage cleverly but with great impact. The atrocities committed by the police against Funmilayo and others are described verbally in projections, rather than shown, but they're no less shocking for that. Fela's survival through the police's response to his resistance movement is ultimately inspiring. The musical's success in conveying both the horrors of the oppressive government and the optimism and good humor with which Fela and his followers oppose it is a moving combination.

The Afro-beat score of Fela's songs with additional lyrics by Lewis has more emphasis on beat and overall mood than melody and is frequently repetitious. Still, the overall color of Draghici's costumes and Robert Wierzel's lighting, Jones' perpetually moving choreography, and the power of the personalities on stage keep this spectacle engrossing. This mix of African art will be new for most, but it's not inaccessible and the story of this leader, unknown to most audiences, is told with clarity and compassion. The opportunity for immersion into a different culture and to hear a story with surprising parallels to our own society, itself experiencing a resurgence of popular uprisings, might have been missed by many of us without the imprimatur of "Broadway." Broadway and tour fans who come to Fela! with an open mind will find it an eye-opening feast as well.

Fela! will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, through April 15, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com or Ticketmaster. For more information on the tour, visit www.felaonbroadway.com/tickets/.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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