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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Fela!
THEATER REVIEW
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2012-04-04

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Playwright: Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. At: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets: 800-775-2000. www.BroadwayInChicago.com; $25-$90. Runs through: April 15

The true story of Nigerian music innovator Fela Kuti is brought to life onstage with an explosion of color, dance and music, thanks to big-name producers Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter as well as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, among many others. However, in the show fans learn that Kuti did not use famous people like Bob Marley but danced to the beat of his own drum.

Kuti was a pioneer and creator of Afrobeat music, a blend of jazz, funk and chanted vocals. It was originated in a club called Afro-Shrine, where the band resided for five years; this is the setting of the show. Director Bill T. Jones keeps the storyline from being a by-the-numbers biography, the moving things along in concert form. The story is told with Tony Award nominated Sahr Ngaujah filling Kuti's shoes.

In many ways, this is a one-man show with dancers, singers and a band onstage supporting him. Ngaujah has a charisma and charm that works well with an audience that he has rising out of their seats and chanting "Yeah, yeah."

The lights—complete with a disco ball—keep the mood light for the first act, and the production truly flies by. Subtitles projected on the back wall help with some of the lyrics that can be difficult to follow.

The audience is transported to Africa by watching this production with true style, and one doesn't need to know the background to have a good time. Audience members rose from their seats to attempt to move to the tune of a time clock; a pelvic thrust from 6 to 12 was easier said than done.

Melanie Marshall—as Kuti's mother, Funmilayo—hits notes that almost shatter glass and Paulette Ivory, as Sandra, keeps Kuti on his amorous toes. Neither stopped him from marrying 27 wives, represented by nine women onstage. (Incidentally, they all married in one day.) The real-life Sandra appeared for opening night in Chicago.

This touring show feels like a concert that follows a loose plot and history. Ngaujah plays saxophone while flashing a sweaty six-pack. (Fact: He runs for miles before the show to get into character.) This multitalented showman captures the spirit of Kuti.

As in real life, the show and Kuti become more political. The second act is heavier, with some graphic quotes and torture. Symbolically, the attack on his commune—where women were raped and his mother was thrown from a window—was difficult to watch, even artistically.

We can all relate to the message "with music as our weapon we will be here tomorrow," as the actor says towards the end of the show. In Nigeria, same-sex activity is still punishable by stoning and incarceration in some states. Before he passed away from AIDS in 1997, Kuti fought for a better country, and this is a show he would be proud of—with good reason.


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