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BWW Reviews: FELA at the Paramount – High Energy Message But Not Enough Story

Musical Theater is a strange animal. It's trying to tell an engaging and evocative story through music. And when you frame that storytelling in the guise of a concert it gets even more difficult as the lyrics of the songs really need to drive that story but it can work ("Passing Strange", "Hedwig" and "Altar Boyz" to name a few). Unfortunately "Fela", currently playing at the Paramount Theatre, does not work in that respect. It's more concert with a little story peppered in and while the cast is certainly talented and the energy is there, much of it felt self indulgent and just too long.

The show surrounds Fela Kuti (performed by Adesola Osakalumi. Duain Richmond performs the role on selected performances), a musician in Africa in the late 70's whose music and message strove to fight against oppression in the country at the time. Unfortunately this message aggravated the government to the point that thousands of soldiers would regularly try to shut down his concerts and invade his compound. But spurned on by the memory of his activist mother Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall) and his American girlfriend Sandra (Michelle Williams), Fela's message continued to get out as he began a new musical movement known as Afrobeat.

So that's the story. A story that could have been conveyed in about 30 minutes. The remaining two hours is filled with Fela's music and some insanely high energy dancing. Now I should say, this style of music is just not my thing. But then neither is the music of Stew, punk rock or Christian boy bands but those aforementioned shows are some I love. But like I said, they told a story with their music and while some of the music of Fela did that, the majority did not and the story is mostly conveyed through some scant dialog and projections. Ah, projections. My regular readers know of my disdain for shows that insist on telling the story through projections. You know what else does that? Movies! But this is live theater so don't over rely on projections to do your job. And then there was the show's insistence on getting the audience on their feet and involved. Show's like "Hair" manage that wonderfully but they wait to get you involved slowly and over time. Fela sets foot on stage and immediately (before we've gotten to know who he is or could possibly be won over by him) begins to order the audience to repeat lyrics and get up and dance. And this came across less like involvement and more like a forced march to have fun.

As I said, there's definitely talent on the stage. The ensemble singers and dancers are outstanding. The band is incredible. And the leads bring the power. Osakalumi has tons of charisma and killer moves and pipes. Williams (formerly of the group Destiny's Child) has a great voice but very little character for her role. And Marshall blew everyone's socks off. In fact her few numbers, with her soaring vocals and rich character, seemed to convey more heart and emotional drive for the show than the rest of the show combined. I think I would have preferred the show, "Fela's Mom".

So if you're a fan of the music of Fela and the Afrobeat style then this show will probably be one you will not soon forget. But for musical theater lovers like me, I kept wondering why they were trying to beat this concert into a story.

"Fela" performs at the Paramount Theatre through June 2nd. For tickets or information visit the Seattle Theatre Group online at

Photo credit: Sharen Bradford

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