Thursday September 21st 2017

“Fela!”

Fela0003It is hard to believe that when the original “road” production of the Award winning “Fela!” came to the Oriental Theatre back a year or so ago, how impressive it was and now on a short visit with a smaller cast, on a much larger stage and in a gigantic venue, it has lost its excitement. “Fela! is not a musical theater production, but more of a history lesson set to music as we are told the story of one Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who created a type of music known as “Afrobeat ( a blend of jazz,funk and African rhythm) to the world of music. The music has much deeper meaning as it’s lyrics are designed to attack the corrupt and oppressive leaders of Nigeria, and for that matter all of Africa in the 1970’s. The entire two and a half hours is reveals Kuti’s life as an artist and political activist, but also celebrates a new form of music that can be enjoyed by all and his strong commitment to universal dignity.

In the role of “Fela’ is the powerful Adesola Osakalumi, who plays off the audience well, but whose thick accent, at times made him difficult to understand. I also was surprised to see that his great sax playing was in fact, being played by Alex Harding  , a member of the onstage musicians ( 10 in all, who truly make the musical numbers one of the best parts of the evening). The book, written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones ( who also directed) is based on a true story and during “Black History Month”, one that is worth exploring. The biggest problem for this production is the loss of intimacy with the character due to the size of the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place. This is not built for this type of show. Those in the second section are almost a half  block away from the action and the balcony is even worse. The theater was pretty empty and this could be due to the location of the theater ( a destination for sure), the $21 for parking, the lack of any dining spots and the actual ticket prices ( although they start at $20, if you really want to experience the show, you need to sit up close in the $70 seats). This means that a couple with parking and a drink will be somewhere in the $200 range without dinner. In today’s economy- that is probably out of reach. The Nigerian population of our city is large enough to support this show, but not a these costs.Fela0007

The cast is solid with some great dance numbers ( Maija Garcia handles this as well as the direction of this cast on this stage, based on the original work by Jones). Michelle Williams is the “name power” they have brought with this company ( former member of Destiny’s Child, who hails from Rockford) and Melanie Marshall truly shines as Funmilayo. There is an alternate listed for the role of Fela ( Duain Richmond) and he is given star billing as well, so I am assuming that since this is a show where the lead is onstage almost all of the two and a half hours, it is a role that needs for the actor to do every other show.

The set is simple- we are at The Shrine for its last evening of music and festivities before the military comes in and cleans up.The costumes are colorful and tonight is a memorial to Fela’s mother Funmilayo who died seven months earlier. Just remember, these are the 70’s, forty plus years ago There is some interesting video footage and wonderful lighting effects, but once again, the size of the theater doesn’t allow for the power that it did at The Oriental ( and I am sure on Broadway). Oh, if only the producers could find a way to bring this powerful story to the people ( as Kuti himself wanted) in a smaller, more intimate space. When Kuti tried to play with the audience, it also gets lost due to the size of the venue and I was very surprised that there was no mention prior to the start about cell phones and photos. The theater was ablaze with phones and texting and a few flashes here and there as well.

This production will only be here through Saturday, the 23rd with performances as follows:

Thursday at 7:30 p.m.,Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.

Tickets are $20-$70 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 312-791-6320 or by going online at www.ticketmaster.com

The theater is located at 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive and there is gobs of parking, indoors, but it is $21.00 ( no discounts? why not?)

For more info on “Fela!” visit www.felaonbroadway.com or you can read my review from last year’s Broadway In Chicago production.

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