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Michelle Williams finds a bit of destiny in "Fela!" role

For Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013

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Michelle Williams' present, and near-future, is all about "Fela!," the multiple Tony Award-winning musical about the life of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

But her past as a member of Destiny's Child is what's really been shining the spotlight on the singer during the past couple of months.

In December she and partners Beyonce and Kelly Rowland got together to record their first new song in eight years, "Nuclear," which Williams co-wrote for a new compilation called "Love Songs." Then the trio reunited on stage as part of Beyonce's halftime show at Super Bowl XLVII, singing their hits "Bootylicious" and "Independent Women" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" -- and having a great time in the process.

"The Super Bowl was beautiful," says Williams, 32. "I had a blast. We all did. We felt like little girls again. I remember in one of the rehearsals we were literally just acting up, and the choreographer and creative director were like, 'You guys...!' But we couldn't help it. When three good girlfriends get together, you're free and you don't care who's around because we're trying to catch up and be goofy.

"It was just that good feeling of being together all over again. It was a great time."

Williams also pleads guilty to playing deliberately coy prior to the Super Bowl, telling interviewers that Destiny's Child -- which stopped working actively in 2006 -- would not be performing even though it was being widely reported.

"I was just trying to protect the integrity of Beyonce's show," she explains. "She really wanted it to be a surprise. Had I not had to promote 'Fela!,' I would not have had to answer those questions. So when people said, 'Hey, Michelle, is it going to happen?' I wasn't going to say 'yes.' It wasn't my show. (Beyonce) didn't want anybody to know."

Williams says she's up to do more with Destiny's Child "in a minute" but adds that nothing is currently planned. "I think (the Super Bowl) was a good moment," she notes, "and it felt good for all of us and you definitely want those moments again. So it's a possibility."

Meanwhile, "Fela!" is keeping Williams occupied. After previous roles in "Chicago," "The Color Purple," "Aida" and "What My Husband Doesn't Know," she landed the role of Kuti's lover and fellow social/political activist Sandra Isadore after auditioning for another production by "Fela!" co-creator Bill T. Jones. "They called a few months later saying, 'Hey, we want you to come out on the road to do 'Fela!,' and I was like, 'Oh my God, absolutely!' " she remembers.

Williams was familiar with the show. She'd been introduced to Kuti's music about five years ago and attended productions of "Fela!" on Broadway and in London. "I really got into his music, to the point where I would just sit on YouTube and search for a lot of his performances and just be so in awe of him," she says. Being part of the production, meanwhile, has "been just a great thing, even a spiritual thing. How his life (story) is seamlessly told through the music is incredible. It's even a spiritual thing, just a beautiful feeling."

Williams also had an opportunity to consult to Isadore, who now resides in Chicago, by telephone and e.mail as she prepped for the role.

"She's exactly what I knew she would be -- very feisty," Williams notes with a laugh. "She was like, 'Now, you've got to be strong. You've got to be aggressive.' One of the lines in the show is, 'Fela, we have to be strong!' and I was like, 'Wow, Sandra said that to me! 'You've got to be strong! Ain't no time for weakness!' '

"That really fired me up."

Williams is slated to be with the "Fela!" touring company through June and possibly for some overseas dates during the summer. But she's also "about 80 percent" finished with her fourth solo album, and first in five years, which she hopes to have out during the early summer.

"It's an inspirational/gospel project, but it sounds like an R&B/pop album," says Williams, who's also planning to launch a charitable foundation in her home town of Chicago this year. "(The producers) gave me the same tracks he would give to, like, Chris Brown and Kelly Rowland. Sometimes when you say you're doing a gospel album, it seems like people go back to their vaults of music they did in 1992, and I'm like, 'No, give me fresh-sounding music.' So this (album) sounds very current and contemporary.

"Y'know, since (2008) I've been doing theater every year, just one show after another. And then here I am this year in 'Fela!' So I'm feeling like, 'OK, I've got to do some new music. It's time.' "

"Fela!" will be performed for eight shows Tuesday through Sunday, Feb. 12-17, at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 313-887-8501 or visit www.musichall.org.

Web Site: www.musichall.org

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