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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 31, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 22
Can't stop the Afrobeat - Fela! invites you to worship at the Shrine of Music
Arts & Entertainment
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Can't stop the Afrobeat - Fela! invites you to worship at the Shrine of Music

by Eric Andrews-Katz SGN A&E Writer

FELA!
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
Through June 2
Many people in the United States may not know the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-97), but the story of his music as a representation of his country's struggle is nothing short of vibrant - full of energy and highly infectious, it appeals to just about everyone, whether they are familiar with contemporary African music styles. The musical based on his life and work is more than a story of how Afrobeat came to America. It's a story of courage, determination, and acknowledgment of one's ancestral line that gives the strength to rise above all challenges.

Set in the late 1970s in Lagos, Nigeria, at the Shrine of Music (a club Fela built), the story begins shortly after the political murder of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Funmilayo was a highly controversial activist, and she bestows her strength and courage in her son.

MUSIC AND POLITICS
In the early '60s Fela traveled to London and studied jazz, eventually going to the United States and finding love with an African-American political activist named Sandra Izsadore. When he returns home to his beloved Nigeria, he finally hears the voices of his ancestors in the rhythm and music of the people that have always been around him, forming a fusion between jazz and his native music - a combination he names Afrobeat. His music becomes a wave washing over Africa and the world, stirring up rebellion against the regime. Arrest after arrest happens with his music's followers protesting and demanding his release, until the fateful night in 1978 when more than 1,000 soldiers broke into his compound, brutally attacking all inside and fatally injuring his mother.

Multi-talented and award-winning singer Michelle Williams (of Destiny's Child) plays Izsadore. Her voice is clear and well-trained to handle the rhythms of the powerful music. She does a good job being the woman who leads Fela to find his heritage by teaching him about the Black struggle in America. Through special arrangement with Equity, Melanie Marshall plays Funmilayo, reprising the role she created on the West End and took to Broadway. Her voice is a seriously powerful instrument that takes a firm hold of both the music and the role. Her presence on stage is ethereal and her voice definitely possesses the stage with every note she sings. It is easy for the audience to see why her son goes to her for guidance and reassurance when his faith fails - Marshall's singing performance exuberates a powerful "earth mother" stage presence.

BREAKING DOWN THE WALL
Without a doubt the star of Fela! is Adesola Osakalumi, playing the title role. He knows what he's doing as he struts on stage, commanding all eyes on him as he engages the audience and works them into the show. His energy level overflows and washes into the audience in waves of vigorous music. Osakalumi brings a definite sense of who Fela (the man) was and glorifies his persona and music, sharing it with all who are watching his every move.

There is not a single person in the cast who isn't above and beyond with their energy and performance. Voices mingle in beautiful harmony as well as creating the sharp cries of revolution and rebellion. To watch this cast move on stage is to be caught up in a whirlwind of dance, incorporating every muscle of the body. From incredible tap-dancing to traditional African movement, these men and women are in complete control of their bodies, and every motion is easily defined in the muscles that can be seen at work from any seat in the audience.

This show isn't like most in the sense that audience participation is encouraged. There is no fourth wall to separate "us" from "them" (which is one of the points made in the show) and we, the audience, are brought into the scene from the very beginning. Fela addresses us, encouraging our comments and reactions to the inferno of energy this cast is letting loose on us. From simple choral response in song to actual dance lessons (given simultaneously to the entire audience), the abundance of the cast's dynamism and vitality is willingly and readily to share.

A BROADWAY SENSATION
Fela! first opened on Broadway on November 23, 2009, where it ran for over 450 performances. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards (including Sahr Ngaujah as Fela and Lillias White as Funmilayo) the musical won three, including Best Choreography (Bill T. Jones). Through special arrangement, the musical had a return engagement on Broadway from July 9 to August 4, 2012. Ngaujah again played the title role, with the role of Funmilayo being played by Melanie Marshall.

Fela continued to create music and fight against the government of Nigeria until his death on August 3, 1997. His older brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a former minister of health and a prominent AIDS activist, announced that Fela's death was related to Kaposi's sarcoma, brought on by the AIDS virus.

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