FELA!, which has been called “a provocative hybrid of dance, music and theatre,” exploded onto the stage Wednesday during opening night at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical, which runs through April 15, is a touring production presented by Broadway in Chicago.
Based on a true story, FELA! recounts the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a controversial Nigerian musician/composer and charismatic political activist who created Afrobeat, a type of music that combines jazz, funk and African rhythms with harmonies. Through his inflammatory lyrics, he openly criticized the oppressive and corrupt military dictatorships of Nigeria and other African countries. Ultimately, Kuti’s story is essentially one of love, courage and passion.
Combining members of both Broadway and London’s Royal National Theatre casts, FELA! starred Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the title role. He was joined by Melanie Marshall (Funmilayo) and Paulette Ivory (Sandra).
Also appearing was an ensemble of attractive, multi-talented dancers who were mesmerizing as they performed Jones’ sensual, often erotic choreography to Kuti’s eclectic, exotic rhythms.
Ngaujah, who received a Tony nomination for best actor as Fela, was brilliant in an intense, super-charged, endearing and often humorous performance that saw him sing, dance, tell stories and demonstrate virtuosity while playing the saxophone, almost non-stop throughout the show (which is two hours and 40 minutes in length with one 20-minute intermission).
Set in Kuti’s Lagos nightclub called The Shrine, FELA! featured his distinctive Afrobeat music informed by its throbbing rhythms (songs included were The Clock/Originality, Yellow Fever/Ikoyi Blindness, Upside Down, Kere Kay, Egbe Mio, Trouble Sleep, and Coffin for Head of State). Ngaujah, along with the show’s superb onstage band, captured the infectious quality of his music. Proof of its impact was an audience that was often in constant motion while sitting or when urged to stand up and dance.
Marshall was magnificent as Fela’s sainted mother Funmilayo, a world renowned feminist leader and teacher. Active in the Nigerian struggle for independence, she died from injuries sustained after she was thrown from a balcony by government soldiers during an attack on Fela’s commune/recording studio, Kalakuta Republic. Possessing a multi-octave, operatic voice, Marshall gave a hauntingly stunning performance in Rain, during which Funmilayo’s spirit encourages Fela to persevere in his struggle for justice and dignity.
Paulette Ivory was also effective as Sandra, a Black Power political activist who influences Fela during a 1969 visit to L.A. while touring with his band, Koola Lobitos. During the curtain call, the real Sandra Isadore, who happened to be in attendance, was introduced and brought on stage to join the cast.
FELA! was conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel, with book by Jones and Lewis and music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Its creative team includes Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Marina Draghici, lighting designer Robert Wierzel and Tony Award-winning sound designer Robert Kaplowitz — all of whom are responsible for a sumptuous theatrical spectacle that assaults the senses, tears at the heart and stirs the spirit.
For tickets and information about FELA! at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph) in Chicago, call the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at (800) 775-2000 or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.