Review: FELA!, Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 14 – Mar 4

By Julie Gervais

For almost three weeks now, it’s been really hot at the corner of Brush & Madison.

Hot with the pounding rhythms of Afrobeat. Hot with the oppression of post-independent military rule. Hot with mosquitoes and injustice and frustration, and with the odd combination of fear and fearlessness found in places where chaos and violence rule the day.

FELA! Ensemble

Most of all though, the heat comes from some of the most hyperkinetically mobile dancers ever gathered together in one show. Entire essays could be written on the range of movement of the human pelvis, as shown by these dancers.

The buzz has been loud in Metro Detroit about the Music Hall’s extended run of the hit Broadway musical ‘FELA!’, the story of the legendary Nigerian musician and activist.  And the show has not disappointed.

The energy levels are off the charts, and if you’re someone who finds it hard to sit still in your seat when the dancing is so big, you’re in luck here – audience participation in both the dancing and the singing is part of the ticket. Detroit is not generally a city of shy people, and hardly needed an invitation to get the house moving, even on a Tuesday.

The show does not delay in making clear its intentions.  Right up near the top, “Yellow Fever” is a spine-tingler. It moves so fast and furious, and so much like a finale, that you wonder how they can possibly go forward from there. Later on, you wonder how they’ll be able to do it again the next night.

Adesola Osakalumi as Fela Kuti

One of the show’s delights is getting to know this character, so much talked about. “He” (on Tuesday, the fabulous Adesola Osakalumi, who slips into Fela’s skin like it’s his own) is never far from the center of the swirling action, carrying the thread through the events of his life. If ever there was anyone whose life events merit a full evening of theatre, it’s this guy. Instead of adding drama, I’m told they needed to subtract some. Fela the public figure is a legend.

But Fela the man is something of a surprise. He’s child-like with wonder at the world, recounting his travels and adventures as a naïf, yet with the wisdom of an elder. His humor is self-deprecating and he finds it in some unlikely places (like prison).

It’s difficult to condense a life this big into an evening, and surely some aspects must be weighted at the expense of others. The murder of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Kuti, figures large due to its enormous impact on his life. There is a beautiful duet between the two, poignant and haunting. She remains in the show after her death, appearing in a nightmarish scene that evolves – no point in lingering on the morose – into a kind of dance club party. The seeming incongruity of this turns out to be something of a calling card for the show – bad stuff happens in life, but you still take your joy where you can find it.

There is much joy, especially found during the many moments that offer a complex and rich layering of movement and song. That the directors make these moments feel thrilling, rather than overwhelming or confusing, is a huge tribute to them. (Choreography is by one of the dance world’s heroes, Bill T. Jones). Several things going on at once feels like…life. Life with heightened sensibilities, with excellent music and dancing, and with the warmth of Africa.