published Friday, May 10, 2013
Sure, it may be about a man who constantly challenged the authority of the repressive military government of Nigeria in the 1970s. But it’s also about how he created his own musical style called Afrobeat by combining his musical influences from traditional African rhythms to jazz and Frank Sinatra, thereby becoming the hottest name on the continent.
Fela Anikuklapo-Kuti was an activist but he was also an entertainer. Book writers Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis zero in on this, never letting the character move too far from either as he tries to decide which label defines him more. Fortunately for us, the result is a narrator who is able to remain affable even while relating the struggles of his life and country. In the Zen world of musical theater, he is carrot and stick. Sounds impossible, but he’s not the only one combining roles.
Bill T. Jones is the choreographer and the director/co-creator. Having firmly achieved legend status in the world of dance, he has moved into the Broadway sphere, winning Tonys in choreography for Spring Awakening as well as Fela! (for which he was nominated for direction, too). Also combining roles is Marina Draghici, who won a Tony for these costumes but was also nominated for the set she designed here as well. Though the set is as much a combination as anything else with equal ingredients lighting from designer Robert Wierzel (nominated for a Tony) and projections from Peter Nigrini that change the walls as easy as changing costumes. Somehow the roles are blurred but the edges stay sharp, like a Russian doll in a kaleidoscope…with a beat.
The secret to the production at the Winspear, however, is the actor who portrays the activist-ertainer: Adesola Osakalumi and his ability to combine the extremes so fluidly. He’s the ambassador to the world of Fela as well as the character. Osakalumi has all the talents necessary for a Broadway star: singing, dancing, acting, but none are employed to such effectiveness in this role as his sidelong glance and snow-white smirk. They are exactly what’s needed to set the audience at ease. To give you an example of the power of his charm, he got the audience of middle-aged Lexus Broadway Series ticket holders to get on their feet and work on their pelvis gyrations.
As for the story of the show, it roughly takes place after Fela has achieved his fame, traveled the world and returned to set up a nightclub/compound in Lagos, but is told almost like a self-narrated A&E biography complete with of clips, pictures and news clippings. He breaks down the influences of his music and then turns around and does the same for his politics, including the effect of Sandra Isadore, a member of the Black Panthers played by the statuesque Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame.
It’s a one-man show amidst a dance piece with a really good band. The only place where it gets a little dicey is in the second act when Fela goes to the underworld to communicate with his mother. For a minute, it’s like losing the one person we knew at an intense party that is starting to spiral out of control.
When we get him back, it is at the feet of his mother, Funmilayo, played by the amazing Melanie Marshall. In the first act she whets our appetite at the end of one appearance by holding a note with such delicate firmness that all action stops allowing her to regally cross the stage and exit. Even after exiting, everyone listens to the last drops of vibration. If you had to endure a trip to the underworld, this is what you would be hoping to make it all worth it. Marshall doesn’t disappoint with a song that clearly explains what Fela must do.
It seems strange to leave the dancing to a late paragraph in a review of a Bill T. Jones piece, but at this point quality is just a given. The setting is Fela’s club in Lagos, The Shrine. So, most of the dancing fits that context, mixing club dancing with some traditional African forms. Underneath all of it is a celebration of the human body. It’s a world of sexual display, combing prowess and prowling but never forgetting the humor inherent in the endeavor. At one point, Fela marries all of his female dancers. He divorced them the same way.
No review would be complete without mentioning the djembe beat provided by Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green, as well as Ismael Kouyate’s singing. Just as Michelle Williams bears the mark of pop and Melanie Marshall of opera, Kouyate’s high-trilling voice cuts its own swath through the music. At the end of the show he breaks into a benediction of sorts that completes the journey. It is an appropriate topper to an evening of showing off.
There are quibbles concerning Adesola’s miming of Fela’s saxophone playing and the lack of an encore, but if all the gripes can be summed up with “put down the sax and add a dance,” you’re in for a good time.