At the conclusion of FELA!, the Afrobeat political awareness musical, now on stage at the Palace Theatre, caskets are carried onto center stage and piled up. On top of the stack of caskets, emblazed with names such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and words such as “freedom,” “bullying” and “oppression,” was a vertical box of death entitled, “Chardon High School.” Yes, FELA! is filled with music, but it is a wrenching tale of genocide, oppression and death, not only in Nigeria, where the show is set, but across the world, including a Cleveland suburb.
FELA!, which opened Off-Broadway in September of 2008 and, due to positive reviews and audience reaction, was moved onto Broadway in November of 2009, ran until January of 2011. It won three Tony Awards.
The show’s path to production is quite interesting. Stephen Hendel, who later, along with Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis conceived the script, came across a CD of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who was not only a composer, but a Nigerian underground leader opposed to his country’s controlling and corrupt regime. Hendel saw the songs as a strong message for the disenfranchised, and so the idea for a show was hatched.
The musical centers on Fela’s days when he was targeted by over 1,000 government soldiers intent on closing down his legendary Lagos nightclub, The Shrine. A combination of concert, biography, plea for peace, and opposition to oppression, the dance, music and story make for intriguing theatre.
Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat is a mixture of jazz, funk, African harmonies and rhythms. The sound is created by a blend of modern and African instruments and uses lyrics that attack not only Nigeria’s oppressive dictatorships, but the very nature of hate in the world. Those lyrics tell story after story of political unrest and human desperation for freedom. The constant pounding of the music’s beat illuminates Kuti’s belief that “the drumming is the voice of the world.”
Bill T. Jones, who is a master choreographer, has combined the dance movements of Nigeria, with modern concepts to create exciting, sensual and exhilarating staging. It’s impossible to sit and just watch. The audience was swaying, shouting, singing, and moving, creating an emotional bonding, mirroring Fela’s mesmerizing effect on his fellow countrymen.
As the so accurate welcome sign in the Palace lobby stated, “First you’ll feel it in your feet. Then you’ll feel it in your soul.”
The touring production, though too long, is a spectacle of dance, song, projections, strobe lights, and energy. The performances are excellent. The singing and dancing of highest quality. The staging creative.
Handsome, sensual Adesola Osakalumi, who also played the role on Broadway, is compelling as Fela. He has a fine singing voice, plays various musical instruments, dances well, and totally populates the role. Part of the show is audience participation, and he handles that difficult task with charm and ease. Sometimes he is a little hard to understand due to his fidelity in using Nigerian accented English, but this is usually a moot factor as many of the words spoken on stage are projected onto the stage’s backdrop.
Michelle Williams, best known as a member of the R&B/Pop group, Destiny’s Child, sings and acts the role of Fela’s main woman, Sandra Isadore, with ease.
Melanie Marshall displays a wonderful singing voice as Funmilayo, Fela’s mother and muse.
The rest of the cast sings, dances, and develops the correct sounds, movements and concepts.
The ten-piece on-stage band is Afrobeat powerful!
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: FELA! has a compelling story, fantastic choreography, and high production quality. It’s a shame that it was only booked into the Palace for a three-day run. Positive word of mouth would have propelled the show into a long running box office hit.
Tickets for FELA!, which runs only through April 4, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.