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 www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway

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