Before we get started, a rant.
What is with people rushing out before the curtain call? It’s extremely bad manners. This has happened at several venues around the area and it’s surprising every time. You didn’t leave at intermission, you sat through the performance, pay your respects and clap for the production. You don’t have to stand if you don’t want, but leaving during a curtain call is atrocious. Don’t worry, you’ll get to your car soon enough. Relax.
“Fela!” opened last night at the Paramount. It’s kind of a wonder that this show is on tour. It’s part African folktale, part dance show, part concert, part rave. It’s an overwhelming experience. Basically, it’s not something that everyone across America will enjoy. This isn’t to say that all art has to be enjoyed by all people, but it’s surprising that the producers chose to tour this production. It might be that Jay Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith have their names attached to the show. Unfortunately, name recognition isn’t really enough to make this an accessible show.
“Fela!” is based on the biography of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary and genius musician credited for founding Afrobeat. This is pretty much all the information that you will get out of this show. A scanning of his Wikipedia page yields more details.
The show is framed as another night at Fela’s nightclub The Shrine, where the party doesn’t begin until after midnight and cruises on well toward dawn. Except when there’s a flashback. Then who is to say what’s going on. The scarcity of a plot can be ignored only because of the absolutely incredible talent on the stage — and this is not to be underestimated. The ensemble, especially the women who play Kuti’s “Queens,” are beyond remarkable. To call what they do merely “dancing” and “singing” is underselling it. The show also features an amazing soloist, a jaw-dropping tap dancer, and the live band is hot hot hot.
Adesola Osakalumi as Fela is charming and powerful, although his thick accent makes it hard to understand him, especially when he gets emotional. Fortunately, to enjoy Fela!, you can’t focus on the story or the characters or what happens, so it’s okay if you don’t hear every word. Osakalumi speaks directly to the audience, jovially mocking for not being rowdy enough, urging folks to get out of their seats and shake their groove things. He doesn’t break the fourth wall — there is no fourth wall. Seattle might pride itself on being all culturally hip, but it became very, very awkward when the house lights went on and everyone was asked to shake their tushies as one.
The real star of the show is Melanie Marshall as Fela’s mother Funmilayo. A feminist, teacher, and political activist in her own right, Funmilayo was an international force to be reckoned with before she murdered in her son’s compound by the Nigerian government. She is played by the magnificent Melanie Marshall. Marshall effortlessly soars through notes that would choke a mere mortal. What she’s saying or what’s going on around her songs is still a mystery, but whenever she was on stage, the audience rejoiced.
If you are interested in an engrossing theatre experience with some of the best dancing and vocal pyrotechnics that you’ve ever seen, then, with that firmly in mind, it is worth it to check out “Fela!” If, however, you are looking for a narrative with arc or for some new insight to this charismatic figure, you might just stick to looking him up online and listening to his music on Spotify.
Oh yeah, and Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child is in it.
Now through June 2