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Theater Jones

Most Happy Fela!

At the Winspear Opera House, the tour of Fela!, about Afrobeat sensation Fela Kuti, is more than worth the admission price.


published Friday, May 10, 2013

Going to any show involves a lot of effort. Plans are made, tickets purchased and outfits chosen. There’s a lot riding on the evening. When it’s a new show, the risk threatens to overwhelm the reward. Even more so when the subject may not be familiar.
Well, there’s nothing to fear in Fela!, now at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House.

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. Thanks For Reading



Chicago Sun Times

Operalike ‘Fela!’ rocks the Arie Crown Theatre

‘Fela!” the explosive show about Nigerian composer and political firebrand Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is categorized as a Broadway musical. But watching the galvanic touring production now at the Arie Crown Theatre I had this thought: “Fela!” may very well be the first Afro-beat opera.

It’s not just that the Arie Crown Theater — an uncongenial airplane hangar of a space, despite its fine acoustics — has the seating capacity of an opera house. It’s that “Fela!” has all the components of opera: A grand-scale story; tragic, larger-than-life characters; a dynamic onstage band; a fabulous dancing chorus; sound-and-light-show theatrics, and an overriding sense of ritual.

I’ve seen the show in two other venues: In a small Broadway house that made you feel you were entering The Shrine, Fela’s iconic, musically audacious, sexually promiscuous and politically “dangerous” nightclub in Lagos that, during the 1970s, was a hotbed of activity; and last year, at the Oriental Theatre here, where it seemed a bit distant. But somehow, at the Arie Crown, the show — conceived by director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel, and driven by the songs of Fela Kuti (with additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan Mclean) — has popped into overdrive. t easily fills the space.

Fela Kuti, who even dreamed of becoming Nigeria’s president, was a sharp, unrelenting thorn in the side of Nigeria’s military dictatorship for years. Arrested, tortured and jailed many times, in the late 1970s his compound, the Kalakuta Republic, was destroyed, with many of his friends and followers horribly brutalized, and his mother, Funmilayo, who he emulated, was murdered.

Framed as the musician’s final performance at The Shrine, “Fela!” traces the development of the musician’s Afrobeat sound — unique synthesis of West African “highlife,” the Afro-Cuban beat, and the influences of Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and James Brown. It also follows his growing role as a rock star-like political irritant whose hit song, “Zombie” (the term he used to describe Nigerian military officials and all those who fell in line behind them), became an international hit, and, far more perilously, a subversive anthem in Nigeria.

The role of Fela is something of a triathalon, and here, the magnetic Adesola Osakalumi — with his seductive voice, radiant personality, sexy physique and abiding sense of teasing, bitter anger — has the character nailed. He fires up the stage.

Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child fame), tall and bean-pole thin, and with the ideal R&B voice, moves with sinewy grace and snap as she plays Sandra, Fela’s feisty American girlfriend who introduces him to the Black Power movement but, like his many African “wives,” is less successful at indoctrinating him in feminism. Melanie Marshall is formidable as the operatic Funmilayo, with Gelan Lambert a knockout lead male dancer along with Rasaan-Eluah “Talu” Green.

Most crucially in this show, however, is the ever-present ensemble of dancers who are in wild, perpetual motion, and a fabulous 10-piece band. As James Brown might have sung, this show has “Got the Feeling.”



Forest Park Review

A complicated FELA!

Afrobeat came to Madison Street last week. Performers from the splashy Broadway musical FELA! visited Old School Records, April 10, at the invitation of owner and World Music fanatic Jodi Gianakopoulos. The show is a musical tribute to the Nigerian musician and rebel Fela Kuti.

“It’s such an amazing show, and Fela was such a fascinating person,” Gianakopoulos said.

FELA! dancers Iris Wilson and djembe player Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green arrived at the store almost two hours late (Broadway time!) in the colorfulFELA! van, which parked on Madison Street. Patient fans listened to DJ Michael Thornton spinning Afrobeat hits and snacked on treats.

The show closed last weekend at the Oriental Theater in Chicago and is moving on to Boston. Winner of three Tony Awards, and nominated for 11,FELA! was co-produced by hip-hop star Jay Z and Hollywood’s Will and Jada Smith. The show tells the story of Nigerian music superstar Kuti and his contradictory and semi-tragic life. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1997.

Wilson said the show’s stop in Lagos, Nigeria was the most moving part of the tour. “People in Lagos told us, ‘You’re bringing Fela back to us.'” Wilson said the Smiths and Jay Z attended several shows on Broadway and gave the cast a “wonderful party” opening night.

Kuti, son of a Nigerian minister father and a political activist mother, was sent to London in the 1960s to study medicine. Instead, he moved to L.A. “to party,” said Gianakopoulos. There, as a musician, he was exposed to James Brown, Izsadore Smith’s Black Panthers and the Black Power movement. He brought the music and the rebellion back to Nigeria. He added African rhythms to a funky horn section and soulful keyboards, and called it Afrobeat. Singing in Pidgin English, his lyrics transcended language boundaries in Africa.

Gianakopoulos discovered Fela in Iowa City, where she was an undergraduate in political anthropology at Iowa University. “I found this Shanachie Records recording of Beasts of No Nation in 1989, and I just loved it.” Gianakopoulos DJs a World Music radio show called “Old School Playground” at Triton College, 88.9 WRRG, on Tuesday nights.

Fela fell afoul of Nigeria’s totalitarian government, mocking Nigerian officials and institutions by name in his music. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned numerous times.

“Fela Kuti was a huge star all over Africa,” said Columbia College Film and Video Professor Dan Dinello, who visited the king of Afrobeat in Lagos, Nigeria in 1983, ostensibly to make a documentary. “King Sunny Ade was also huge. Ade was like the Beatles of Afrobeat – Fela was more like the Rolling Stones. He was the rebel. When he died [in 1997], it was like Elvis and Martin Luther King died at the same time in Nigeria.”

In January this year, Dinello published an ebook about his harrowing experiences on that trip, Finding Fela: My Strange Journey to Meet the Afrobeat King. He published it through Smashwords.com. To write it, he expanded a 1983 Reader article he wrote about the trip and revisited his detailed diary from Africa. Dinello appeared on Gianakopoulos’ radio show Tuesday night.

Dinello, who has lived in Oak Park for 30 years, heard about Fela’s music in the early ’80s when some friends who’d been in the Peace Corps in Ghana gave him the album Zombie by Fela and his group, The Afrika 70. A self-described “music fanatic,” Dinello loved the record – and the attitude. “The keyboard, sax and trumpet sound was totally accessible to me and the lyrics, the rebellious attitude, his anti-corporate stance as a spokesperson for the oppressed and the poor spoke directly to me.”

Then Dinello met a student at Columbia College who said he knew Fela and offered to take him to Nigeria. “I was looking for a way to make a project that could bring me grant money. I was naive and had never been out of the country at the time. So I decided to go to Nigeria between semesters for three and a half weeks.” He left behind his wife and a newborn child.

Dinello’s book describes his comical, frustrating and often scary journey, including being arrested by a Lagos police officer who dragged him to jail after he took the cop’s photo. “The policeman rushed off from the street – club out – and pulled me into a cab. Then they drove me to a nearby police station. It was like a junk heap with rotting cars in a grassy field and a dilapidated building. I thought I was about to be put into a hole. Nobody knew where I was.”

After talking his way out of jail, he lived in a hotel close to Fela’s compound, the Kalakuta Republic, which served as a dwelling and recording studio for the star and the 27 “queens” Fela had simultaneously married in 1978.

Like most celebrities, Fela in real life was not the image he appeared to be onstage or on records. Dinello was welcomed regularly to Fela’s home. “All he wore all day were these bikini underwear. In the middle of the room was a sort of pedestal with several gigantic marijuana joints on it. Then there was a big TV that had just been purchased. And a big picture of his mother overseeing the room. Fela would sit in this big chair and smoke joints and talk to people who walked in. He could be surprisingly nice, or incredibly arrogant as well. It was part of his contradictory nature.”

Dinello also attended the all-night parties at Afrika Shrine, the outdoor corrugated steel nightclub built by Fela in Lagos. “His band would go on about 7 p.m. and start to play. He’d show up around midnight and literally play until about 4 in the morning. This was three or four days a week.”

Dinello managed to get some footage of Fela at home, but he could never get permission to film at a performance.

In 1986, when Fela was arrested for allegedly forging currency, then beaten and jailed for five years by the Nigerian government, Amnesty International and Celluloid Records hired Dinello to create a music video of the song “Army Arrangement” using concert footage in England and the filmwork taken during Dinello’s trip.

“The record company wanted to market him as another Bob Marley, but he was so uncompromising. His songs would last for 40 minutes, and once he recorded a song, he would never play it again,” said Dinello.

“He can be criticized for a lot of things. His mother was the voice of independent females in Africa, and yet he had 27 wives and was a somewhat misogynistic person. Also, he died of AIDS, but he recorded an anti-condom song and denied the existence of AIDS, when he could have done so much to spread the message of safe sex,” said Dinello. He adds that Fela was admirable in that he stayed in the poor section of Lagos and always met and supported his fans. Fela often said, “I have death in my pouch,” which was the translation of his middle name.

Fela’s fearlessness and refusal to compromise gave hope to poor Nigerians and other Africans who had to compromise every day in life, just to survive. In the video that uses Dinello’s footage, Fela looks at the camera and says, “Music is the weapon of the future.”

“He had no fear of the army, the government. He was not afraid to criticize the corporate world,” said Dinello. “Like many amazing people, he was a contradictory person.”