Reviewed by Jasleen Jaswal Vines
“I have the power to turn Nigeria upside down.” – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, “Fela!”
After highly acclaimed runs in New York City, Europe, Nigeria, and around the United States, “Fela!” makes its way to Chicago for a three-week stay at The Oriental Theatre. Technically, it is described as “musical theater”, but the phrase doesn’t do this show justice. Beyond music, it’s performance art, dance, political statement, and historical drama.
The theater is staged as The Shrine, a club belonging to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. His mother, Funilmayo, has recently passed away from injuries she suffered at the hands of government soldiers. What starts as a frenetic, high-energy night – joking with the audience, singing with the Afrobeat house band, showcasing the extraordinary dancers – becomes a revelation of Kuti’s remarkable life, from Nigeria to the UK to a civil rights-torn US and back again to Lagos, where he realizes a corrupt government is cheating his countrymen out of opportunities supposedly ushered in by the end of colonialism.
Songs are arranged in groups, each telling a different chapter of the story. The “Black President” suite is powerful in its transformation of Kuti from skirt-chasing musician to political activist. Melanie Marshall (Funilmayo) displays operatic range in “Rain”. Sahr Ngaujah goes all in as Kuti, seemingly channeling the man himself onto the stage. Archival footage of uprisings and revolt project on screens around the theatre, lending the show a gravitas not indicated by the colorful and veranda-like set.
Throughout the show, Kuti struggles to claim the personal in place of the political – why stay behind in Nigeria, when the world is his stage and he could be rich and famous? “Fela!” is powerful in its message: there comes a time when there’s no choice but to fight for what’s right.
THREE WORDS: Fellow Oriental Theatre newbie Mike L. calls the show “visionary, passionate, inclusive.”
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
At The Oriental Theatre
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones
Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Additional lyrics by Jim Lewis
Additional Music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and select Wednesdays
Through April 15
Tickets via Broadway In Chicago kiosks, Ticketmaster retail locations, and www.BroadwayInChicago.com