BWW Reviews: Afrobeat, Political Commentary FELA! Rocks the Palace Theatre

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Afrobeat, political commentary FELA! rocks the Place Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

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.




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Roy Berko Roy Berko, a life-long Clevelander, holds degrees, through the doctorate from Kent State, University of Michigan and The Pennsylvania State University. Roy was an actor for many years, appearing in more than 16 plays, 8 TV commercials, and 3 films. He has directed more than 30 productions. A member of the American Critics Association, the Dance Critics Association and The Cleveland Critics Circle, he has been an entertainment reviewer for more than twenty years.

For many years he was a regular on Channel 5, ABC-Cleveland's "Morning Exchange" and "Live on 5," serving as the stations communication consultant. He has also appeared on "Good Morning America." Roy served as the Director of Public Relations for the Volunteer Office in the White House during the first Clinton Administration.

He is a professor of communication and psychology who taught at George Washington University, University of Maryland, Notre Dame College of Ohio and Towson University. Roy is the author of 31 books. Several years ago, he was selected by Cleveland Magazine as one of the most interesting people in Cleveland.

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