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"Fela" Sets African Politics to a Rousing Beat

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When: Through Feb. 23
Where: Arie Crown Theatre, 2301 Lake Shore Dr. at McCormick Place
Tickets: $20-$70
Info: (800) 745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

"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, as well as 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. It 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, 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 the fabulous 10-piece band with Morgan Price (on tenor sax) putting the brass behind Fela, and Roland Guerrero beating the life out of those conga drums.

Romanian-born set and costume designer Marina Draghici (whose work is stunningly lit by Robert Wierzel) convinces you she was really born in Lagos.

As James Brown might have sung, this show has "Got the Feeling."

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This page contains a single entry by Hedy Weiss published on February 20, 2013 4:54 PM.

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