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Get Up and Dance!

by B.A. Nilsson on March 13, 2013

Fela!
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones Proctors, March 8

 

That I had no interest in seeing this is an embarrassing reminder of the ever-narrowing sensibility to which middle-class white guys succumb as middle age takes over.

But everything else broadcast from London’s National Theatre when I started attending the screenings at the Spectrum 8 Theatres two years ago was impressive enough to persuade me to take a chance on this show. That’s why I was delighted to get a seat when the show hit Proctors last week. Impressive as the broadcast was, the live experience was much better. This show is a party, and you better believe that when we were told to get up and dance why, dammit, we got up and danced.

Williams and Osakalumi in Fela!

From the moment that the charismatic Adesola Osakalumi, who played the title character, exhorted the audience to shout, “Yeah-yeah!” he had us in his grip. He’s been long associated with the show: He was a swing or an alternate for the show’s two Broadway productions. In fact, many of the cast have stayed with the piece, which is why we also got the amazing dancer (and tap specialist) Gelan Lambert as well.

Former Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams more than held her own as Sandra Izsadore, who introduced Fela to the American Black Power movement in the 1960s, especially in the song “Lover” toward the end of the first act.

The show has been criticized for its lack of a conventional book. That’s actually part of its power. As devised by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, it’s a dance performance cleverly disguised as a Broadway show. Its momentum comes from music and movement.

Fela Kuti credits Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo as a strong Afro beat influence. Just as Pozo synthesized Latin rhythms with jazz in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra, so too did Kuti take that mix to Nigeria to create his own unique sound.

Which parallels what Jones has done in creating this show, combining African-styled movement with modern dance and tap. It takes place in Fela’s nightclub, called the Shrine, but the story wanders through his formative years before taking us to the night of a police attack so vicious that it’s rendered onstage in almost complete silence.

Along the way, Fela takes a traditional hero’s journey through water and fire to seek guidance, a wonderfully realized piece of modern mythmaking that gives the musical a powerful heart.

The 10-piece band, under the direction of drummer Greg Gonzalez, were on fire throughout the show, with amazing work by Roland Guerrero on conga and djembe.

So where was the audience? It played to a house less than half-filled, a sorry indictment of the Capital Region’s lack of artistic curiosity. As I noted above, I, too, unfortunately am inclined to dismiss the unfamiliar, but that’s the moment when you push yourself to take a chance. True, the Broadway-show audience around here tends to be—how shall I put it?—very, very white, but this also offered a safe opportunity to share a hall with black people. Who knows: You might get to like it.