Fela! Shakes It (and You) at the Winspear
Whole lotta twerking going on in Fela!, the Broadway musical whose national tour is now steaming up the Winspear Opera House. The dancing in this show is hotness on a whole other scale from other Broadway hits. Bill T. Jones' nonstop choreography fills Fela! with an athletic eroticism centered roundly on the callipygian curves of the male and female dancers.
For two and a half hours, the flow of movement, with and against the rhythms of the music, is so invitingly sexy, you'll want to shake your own groove thing. And you're invited to do just that in the number "B.I.D. (Breaking It Down)," when audience members are asked to get on their feet and follow the bouncing booties. (Oh, Winspear-goers, dare to stop being uptight for five minutes!)
Similar in storytelling and scenic style to Jersey Boys, Fela! (pronounced FAY-lah) sings and dances the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-'97), a Nigerian pop star and political revolutionary whose musical sound was borne of European jazz, African rhythms and American mid-century pop and jazz greats, including Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane and James Brown. (The above-the-title producers of Fela! are some current American showbiz luminaries: Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.)
Adesola Osakalumi, who performed in the Broadway production, is Fela here (alternating with Duain Richmond). Angry one moment, wildly flirty the next, Osakalumi has feline grace as a dancer and a powerful presence as he narrates his character's life. Passions for music and women (Fela married 27 of them, represented by a third that many onstage) are foremost in this show, which was conceived by Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel, inspired by Carlos Moore's biography of Fela.
The first act pounds through a joyous concert framed as Fela's last in his Lagos nightspot, The Shrine. The second act recounts his encounters with Nigerian death squads and his own passing (while not mentioning that it was from AIDS). His dramatic ascension to the heavyside layer (as it was called in Cats) brings forth stellar solos by co-stars Michelle Williams (of Destiny's Child fame) as Sandra, the American with whom Fela fell in love, and Melanie Marshall as Fela's beloved mother, Funmilayo. What voices!
If the pristine, fancified architecture of the Winspear doesn't lend itself easily to the atmosphere of a smoky African nightclub, well, suspend your disbelief and just go with it. And when Fela yells, "Say yeah-yeah!," say it back. Say it loud. And get up and dance.
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