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"Fela!" inspires -- but requires patience from its audience

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

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DETROIT -- It's not very long into "Fela!" before Sahr Ngaujah's Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, having prodded the audience before him to its feet, urges everyone to "leave your shy outside."

That's good advice. With its sinewy, soulful Afrobeat score, "Fela!" is the kind of show that makes you want to move and try to ape what the far more limber ensemble is doing on stage -- in an atmosphere that certainly encourages crowd participation.

But even if you shed your inhibitions, make sure you bring patience into the theater with you. You'll need it.

There are many good reasons to see "Fela!" during its run through March 4 at Detroit's Music Hall Center. It's an important story about a seminal figure in not only music history but also world affairs. From the late 60s until his death in 1997, Fela was a fierce champion of African sovereignty and an outspoken foe of the imperialism and corruption that plagued the continent and his native Nigeria. Headquartered at his Lagos club the Afrika Shrine, where "Fela!" is set, his campaigns -- including a sabotaged run for president in Nigeria -- cost him, physically and emotionally. He was oppressed but never allowed himself to be suppressed, a tragic figure who also happened to possess an incendiary musical vision.

All of that is conveyed in the nearly two and a half hours, plus intermission of "Fela!," which acknowledges that he could be "a hard man" but mostly focuses on his heroics rather than controversial aspects of polygamy and liberal drug use. That's fair enough, and the Sierra Leon-born Ngaujah, who was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards for the role on Broadway, creates a three-dimensional Fela with a robust presence, a wry kind of warmth and a stand-up comedian's sense of timing -- including a spirited exchange with opening-night audience members who wanted him to share the spliff he was smoking at one point.

But "Fela!'s" length is challenging -- especially in the show's dark and ponderous second half. After an opening act that cleverly tells the story of Fela's musical education and politicization, the latter during a late 60s visit to the U.S., the depictions of Fela being harassed and tortured by Nigerian police and of the 1977 raid on his Kalukuta Republic compound that resulted in the death of his mother, activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, can't help but change the tone and feel of the evening. But the book, by Jim Lewis and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, sucks the wind entirely out of the production with the lengthy and impressionistic-to-a-fault "Dance of the Drisas," which sacrifices the musical's homespun feel for artistic pretension.

Following that, Fela's strengthened resolve to continue fighting feels like more of a relief than triumph, wrapping things up on an emotional flat note that feels like a bit of a cheat -- or at least an opportunity missed.

Know that going in to "Fela!" -- but don't like that keep you from going. The music, mixing Fela favorites with new material created for the musical by Aaron Johnson, is galvanizing, of course. And Ngaujah is hardly the only bright point in the cast, supported by the thunder-voiced Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, Paulette Ivory as Sandra Smith, the American Black Panther who helped radicalize Fela, and scene-stealing Ismael Kouyate. The ensemble executes Jones' choreography with seamless exuberance, and the on-stage band is white-hot throughout the night -- especially tenor saxophonist Morgan Price, who recreates Fela's solos.

"Fela!'s" Music Hall opening-night did have a special treat, the presence of Fela's oldest daughter, Yeni, who came on stage and danced with the cast at the end of the show. It was a reminder that there was a real Fela behind "Fela!," and that his message still resonates some 15 years after his death.

"Fela!" runs through March 4 at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $27-$97. Call 313-887-8500 or visit www.musichall.org.

Web Site: www.musichall.org

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