'Fela!' a swirl of African jams, justice

THEATER REVIEW: "Fela!" at the Oriental Theatre ★★★★

Deep into "Fela!," when Fela Anikulapo-Kuti stands defiant at The Shrine, even as the Nigerian military authorities try to break the back of his collective family, the cast of the touring musical brings out some coffins as a political memorial to those lost in the struggle for peace and freedom. Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre, one prominently bore a name I didn't see at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York back in the fall of 2009, when "Fela!" premiered on Broadway: Trayvon Martin.

Martin's killing in Sanford, Fla., history likely will show, was a matter of great complexity, just as Fela, the famous, infamous Nigerian musician, agitator and political activist, was an imperfect man about whom there was a variety of opinions. But the very fact that Martin died, whatever the details, still suggests that little which Fela talked about 40 years ago has been solved. And the presence of that name on this Chicago stage was enough to demonstrate that Bill T. Jones' gutsy, singular creation is a very unusual Broadway musical, and that this exemplary, first-class tour, led (at most performances for the next three weeks) by the show's remarkable, Tony-nominated original star, Sahr Ngaujah, is not set in stone in the usual way of such things but rather is a pulsing, organic entity determined, like its subject, to make its political positions known. And to make them sing and dance, for people of all stripes.

"Fela!" is many things, but it is first and foremost an evocation of what it was like to hear a Fela concert-come-rally at The Shrine, the combination music venue-personal compound inextricably linked with this man. The music and lyrics in this show are the work of the late Fela Kuti.

As any student of Nigeria well knows, the pain and oppression depicted unstintingly in "Fela!" is very real. Fela and his followers, whether in Lagos or London, terrified the Nigerian authorities for many years — partly because of the man's anti-establishment positions, challenging behavior and self-declaration as the ruler of his own autonomous republic — but mostly because of this formidable, well-traveled musician's command of a broad public attracted to his upbeat mix of Afrobeat and self-determination, a groove and a evangelical demand for the kind of mass, personal freedom that would threaten anyone with a tentative hold on power.

Like many intoxicating artists and spokespeople, Fela was a mix of the masculine and the feminine, a shameless but vulnerable showman in a pink jumpsuit wherein beat a heart of courageous, determined steel. He was like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rolled into one, a flashy optimist and opportunist combined with unassailable street credibility, an African nationalist with a band and a microphone, a Nigerian partisan and an artistic citizen of the broader world, all filtered through a love of Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane, music men spinning around Fela's globe.

Jones' show (the modern-dance icon directed and choreographed alone but penned the fluid book with Jim Lewis) has a trifecta of great strengths. One is Ngaujah, a formidable, in-the-moment performer who can stand content as the fun host of a chilled-out dance party and then dice and slice the mood as if he were a butcher's knife cutting through onions.

Ngaujah's attention-demanding work was astonishing on Broadway — where Marina Draghici's environmental design enveloped the entire theater — but he has a much tougher task at the much-larger Oriental, especially since the world of The Shrine now, alas, has to pulse from the proscenium alone. But he delivers this character, and thus this show, all the way to the rafters of the old joint, amping up his scale with the ease of man who's performed as Fela all over the world and who has come to know a man who could do his thing anywhere. It is a formidable piece of organic acting.

The second is the female ensemble — surrogates and representatives of Fela's famous 27 "wives" — who execute Jones' intensely difficult dance vocabulary with a signature mix of bravura technique and utter, quotidian ease.

It's a shrewd device on Jones' part, mitigating Fela's self-evident sexism by physically empowering the disparate women who chose to stand alongside him for, this choreography brilliantly suggests, a whole variety of individual reasons.

Two other women in Fela's life, his American friend Sandra and his mother, Funmilayo, are played by women who joined this production when it was at the National Theatre in London. Both Paulette Ivory and the magnificently voiced Melanie Marshall, who can make Afrobeat sound like the music of the angels, are quite fine.

There's no doubt that "Fela!," which has few of the trappings of the conventional Broadway musical, will be outside the comfort zone of some. It is loose, like Fela. But the overarching strength of Jones' piece is how it uses Fela's own interest in musical synthesis — as he explains to us in this show (the conceit is that a bunch of "international visitors" have shown up at the last concert at The Shrine), his work was a cheerfully eclectic fusion of Western and African music, the very kind of freely wheeled symbiosis that Fela thought could be the foundation of a new, free, proud Africa, where the accepting, exuberant party was always only just getting started.

 

 

When: Through April 15

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Tickets: $20-$100; broadwayinchicago.com

News Coverage on Muhlenberg College - CTNow
RSS feeds allow Web site content to be gathered via feed reader software. Click the subscribe link to obtain the feed URL for this page. The feed will update when new content appears on this page.

Muhlenberg College

A collection of news and information related to Muhlenberg College published by this site and its partners.

Top Muhlenberg College Articles

Displaying items 1-11
  • 17th District congressional debate airs again this weekend

    17<sup>t</sup><sup>h</sup> District congressional debate airs again this weekend
    A debate between Matt Cartwright and David Moylan over the 17th District congressional seat airs on PBS39 twice this weekend. The hourlong forum airs at 5 a.m. Saturday and at 11 a.m. Sunday. It was shown live Tuesday from PBS39 studios in Bethlehem....
  • Dancers, musicians collaborate in unscripted 'Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human'

    The unknown is a terrifying thing. Most of us like to have a plan, a specific set of steps to follow as we navigate through life. We run from the unexpected. We detest the unpredictable. Not Sarah Carlson. Carlson, founder of Allentown's DanceLink, will...
  • McCaffery is new poster boy for merit selection

    I know there are people out there who think Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery was treated unfairly because he was suspended this week for passing around raunchy emails. McCaffery's non-apology apology certainly made it clear he thinks he's...
  • Muhlenberg stages Sondheim musical 'Anyone Can Whistle'

    Stephen Sondheim's absurdist cult musical "Anyone Can Whistle" takes on insanity, conformity, miracles and government. As the seldom-produced musical celebrates the 50th anniversary of its opening on Broadway, Muhlenberg College has decided to craft its...
  • Former Parkland standout Lally named Muhlenberg wrestling coach

    Shaun Lally, a former Parkland High School standout and Division I wrestler, has been named Muhlenberg College's head wrestling coach. For the last two years, Lally was the head coach at Stony Brook University, where he created the school's first-ever...
  • Politics as Usual

    Politics as Usual
    Casey talks FIFA scandal with soccer fans Sen. Bob Casey's concerns over the FIFA scandal earned him a rather unusual media appearance for a member of Congress: an interview on a soccer-centric podcast. The Democratic senior senator from...
  • Lehigh University names new president

    Lehigh University names new president
    Lehigh University has a new leader. John D. Simon, executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia, will become Lehigh's 14th president July 1, the school announced Friday in a news release. Simon is an internationally renowned...
  • Sinfonia Virtuosi is right size for 'Emerging Genius' concert

    When the full-size Pennsylvania Sinfonia chamber orchestra is too big and the Valley Vivaldi ensemble too small, the Sinfonia Virtuosi is just right. That configuration of about 20 musicians, introduced last year, opens the Sinfonia's 2014-2015 season...
  • Poll: Nearly 22% of Republicans deserting Corbett

    Poll: Nearly 22% of Republicans deserting Corbett
    Gov. Tom Corbett is not only trailing his Democratic challenger badly, but he has lost the support of nearly a quarter of his fellow Republicans, according to polls showing his bid for a second term is in deep trouble. With the incumbent faring so...
  • In Pennsylvania race, Republican governor cannot count on his own

    WAYNE Pa. (Reuters) - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is not only trailing his Democratic challenger badly, but he has lost the support of nearly a quarter of his fellow Republicans, according to polls showing his bid for a second term is in deep...
  • Lehigh Valley congressional debate set

    Lehigh Valley congressional debate set
    Lehigh Valley congressional candidates will face off this month in a debate sponsored by The Morning Call and PBS39. The debate between incumbent Democrat Matt Cartwright and Republican David Moylan will be 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at PBS39's Bethlehem studios,...