Review: “Fela!” Music & Lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Book by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones. Tour Direction & Choreography by Maija Garcia. Original Direction & Choreography by Bill T. Jones. With Adesola Osakalumi, Michelle Williams and Melanie Marshall. Now through June 2, 2013 at The Paramount.
“Fela!” the award winning jukebox musical about the music and life of African superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who not only created the “Afrobeat” sound, but galvanized the people of his native Nigeria to fight the oppression of dictatorial government, is basically a review-proof show. Fela was a beloved activist; his funeral was attended by a MILLION devoted followers, and his music is loved around the world. How can anyone diss the life and music of a man with that kind of respect? He’s Abraham Lincoln and The Beatles all rolled into one ridiculously talented man.
Fortunately, it’s kind of hard to find much fault with “Fela!” The creators keep it pretty simple; the premise of the musical is that it’s Fela’s last night performing at The Shrine, his night club hq on the wrong side of the tracks in Nigeria’s capitol city of Lagos. The club is surrounded by the omnipresent enemy, the dictatorial armed forces of the controlling regime and Fela and his followers are gonna blow the roof off the Shrine for one last time. It’s a bigass musical dance party to the driving percussion of the Afrobeat sound, but there’s also some dark forces at work as Fela deals with his own demons (he liked to party) and the ghostly presence of his beloved, martyred mother, Funmilayo. “Fela!” manages to be an exuberant and infectious tribute to the glorious music of the man Fela, as well as the cultural dance traditions of Africa; both the music (all of it by Fela with some additional music and lyrics by the other creators) and the vibrant choreography of the iconic Bill T. Jones make “Fela!” a fun-filled dance party, complete with an audience “dance along” segment. It’s a funky good time party.
But, “Fela!” soars when it deals with the darker sides of the story as Fela recounts both the beatings and arrests endured by himself and his followers as they fight the corruption of the Nigerian government. The number “Sorrow Tears and Blood” hauntingly portrays the violence inflicted upon the members of Fela’s community. Even more emotionally wrenching is the operatic number “Rain” largely performed by the spirit of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo in a staggering performance by actress Melanie Marshall that channeled the greatest climatic arias of the old school operas. The party aspects of “Fela!” are highly entertaining, but the emotional wallop of the show is its greatest asset. “Fela!” is that rare show where you’ll want to dance your ass off, then profoundly reflect on the message behind most of Fela’s songs and the creators of the show have managed to make both aspects of the material work harmoniously.
The show is also blessed with an excellent ensemble of actors, dancers and onstage musicians. They’re all led by the dynamic and charismatic presence of Adesola Osakalumi as Fela, in a performance that manages to be both ridiculously sexy as well as politically and spiritually profound. Mr. Osakalumi’s natural ease on stage and commanding presence are well suited for a role that demands both…Fela’s shoes are big and hard to fill, but Mr. Osakalumi is more than capable to fill them. He’s matched by the commanding presence of the aforementioned Ms Marshall as his mother, Funmilayo in a role that’s spiritual but also strongly connected to the real world. They make a terrific duo.
“Fela!” can be a hard sell…it’s the story and music of a man who didn’t achieve the level of stardom in the U.S. that he obtained in Africa and other parts of the world. But, both the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his music are well worth checking out and “Fela!” is a rare example of a jukebox musical that needs to be seen, heard and experienced.