Monday, May 25, 2015

Review: FELA!

By Toby Zinman

Review: FELA!


By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


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

With a sensational band onstage playing Fela’s music, and direction and choreography by Bill T. Jones (who won the 2009 Tony Award for this show), and a big cast of dancers spectacularly costumed, it’s a vigorous reinvention of musical theatre, inspired by Stephen Hendel. Although the book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. 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 Anikulapo-Kuti originated a kind of music called Afrobeat, and  declared “With music as our weapon…we will be here forever.”  By “here” he meant Nigeria, a country first oppressed by the English colonizers and then by the cruel and corrupt African generals who replaced them. Fela was arrested two hundred times, tortured and imprisoned, and finally died in 1997 of AIDS. His club called Shrine became just that, and he is a legend in Africa.

The plot follows Fela’s life, as he leaves his country to supposedly study medicine in London but instead gets caught up in Western music. It takes a trip to America 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 non-stop, 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” where Fela goes to the realm  of the Yoruba gods to ask his mother’s blessing.  “Zombie,” the most overt and vivid of Fela’s political diatribe songs, is a shocking knockout.

Osakalumi gets the audience in the Academy of Music not only clapping and giving him “Yea, yea” back, but on their feet, attempting the pelvic thrusts and swivels he demonstrates. Everybody seemed to have a good time.


Academy of Music, Broad & Locust Sts. Through March 25. Tickets $20-100. Information: 215-893-1999 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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