Rousing 'Fela!' earns its !

The live-wire musical had the Academy of Music audience clapping and dancing.

Posted: March 22, 2012

No wonder the title has an exclamation point! Loud and colorful and wildly energetic, the bio-musical Fela!, about the Nigerian revolutionary and musician, has electrified audiences all over the world.

With a sensational band onstage playing Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's music, direction and choreography by Bill T. Jones (who won a 2009 Tony Award for this show), and a big cast of dancers spectacularly costumed, it's a vigorous reinvention of musical theater, inspired by Stephen Hendel. Although the book by Jim Lewis and Jones is sketchy and hard to follow, the broad political outline of resistance to tyranny and torture as well as impassioned patriotism is absolutely clear. The only thing complicated about this show is the musical rhythm.

Fela originated the music style Afrobeat, and declared, "With music as our weapon . . . we will be here forever." By "here" he meant Nigeria, first oppressed by English colonizers, then by the cruel and corrupt African generals who replaced them. Arrested more than 200 times, tortured and imprisoned, he finally died in 1997 of AIDS. His club called Shrine became just that, and he is a legend in Africa and internationally.

The plot follows Fela's life as he leaves his country in 1958 for London, where he is supposed to study medicine but instead gets caught up in Western music. It takes a trip to the United States in the '60s to radicalize him politically, under the tutelage of Sandra (Paulette Ivory), who introduces him to the Black Power movement.

Fela's mother, Funmilayo (played by the thrilling-voiced Melanie Marshall), was a powerful civil rights figure in Nigeria, and an ardent feminist; one wonders what she thought of her son - played by Adesola Osakalumi as a strutting, sexy showboater marrying his entire harem of dancers in one ceremony. This ensemble of dancing, prancing, wiggling, jiggling, sizzling women is one of the highlights of the show, as is the fabulous tap-dancing of Gelan Lambert, and the breathtaking drumming of Greg Gonzales.

The music is pretty much nonstop, with a couple of outstanding numbers; most impressive is the aria "Rain," sung by Marshall, and the overlong but visually stunning "Dance of the Orisas," in which Fela goes to the realm of the Yoruba gods to ask his mother's blessing. "Zombie," the most overt and vivid of his political diatribe songs, is a shocking knockout.

Osakalumi gets the Academy of Music audience members not only clapping and chanting, but on their feet, attempting the pelvic thrusts and swivels he demonstrates. Everybody seemed to have a good time.


Inquirer popular-music writer Dan DeLuca wrote about the making of the show "Fela!" in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section.

Read the story at


Fela!

Through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or www. kimmelcenter.org/broadway


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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