Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Mostly Happy 'Fela!' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical featuring the songs of Fela Kuti
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 15

"Original No Artificiality!"

Though the above phrase might not seem easily syncopated into a sing-along chant, Fela Kuti isn't known as the progenitor of Afrobeat for no good reason.

And though I've seen more than 200 different musicals incorporating many different forms of music, the score and choreography of Fela!--utilizing songs by the late Nigerian icon--are easily the most unique that I've ever heard and witnessed upon a theatrical stage.

While I imagine that World Theatre Day--which was commemorated yesterday for the 50th year--connotes theatre around the world rather than "world theatre" in the vein of "world music," seeing Fela! was certainly a wonderful way to celebrate the galvanizing universality of artistic expression. 

Heading into the show last night at Chicago's appropriately resplendent Oriental Theatre, I had scant knowledge of Fela's music or life--including considerable civil rights activism--besides what I quickly gleaned from Wikipedia and briefly saw/heard through YouTube, Spotify, etc.

Reprising his Broadway performance in the title role for which he earned a Tony nomination, Sahr Ngaujah showcased fantastic acting, singing, dancing and saxophone playing, not to mention astonishing abs. But from the upper balcony, I struggled at times to understand what he was saying (due in part to his accent or perhaps my hearing). Though I think I followed most of the highlights--and some dreadful lowlights--of Fela's musical exploration, widespread adoration and governmental persecution, on an initial viewing I failed to properly appreciate the arc of the narrative.

I staunchly hail the work by Ngaujah, the rest of the exuberant cast, amazing band and renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones--who also directed and co-wrote the piece--but I enjoyed Fela! much more as an African music showcase than I followed it as biography. Reviewing the plot synopsis on Wikipedia and elsewhere this morning, it's clear I missed some important moments in Fela's life, which likely explains why I felt that Act II could have gone 20 minutes longer or shorter without much consequence.

Because it was a bit challenging to understand, on both the micro and macro level, Fela! didn't congeal as a bio-musical the way that Jersey Boys--whose return visit is up next for Broadway in Chicago subscribers--did the first time I saw it.

But this is no reason anyone should stay away from Fela!, which offers entirely accessible transcontinental delights. Given the buoyancy of the music and dancing, plus Ngaujah's delightfully affable turn as host--the story is structured to be told from the stage of Fela's Lagos nightclub, The Shrine--even if one doesn't grasp the full extent of Kuti's estimable undertakings and daunting hardships, you'll get the general idea while being eminently entertained.

There is no shortage of articles and books one can read about Kuti, as well as a documentary and numerous video clips. So even if this ebullient show hits you more in your groove thing than your brain thing, that's not a bad thing.

Though certainly not an exclusively joyous account of a gifted musician's life, Fela! should make you most happy, indeed.

(If you don't get the reference of my headline or last line, click here. And also visit to support the show's efforts to help curb deadly malaria--caused by mosquitos--in Africa.)

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