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Cast of 'Fela!' gives its all in cavernous Arie Crown

THEATER REVIEW: "Fela!" at the Arie Crown Theater ★★★

Chris Jones

9:20 AM CST, February 21, 2013

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If you set out to re-create the ambience of The Shrine, the feverishly infamous Lagos music venue ruled by the Nigerian icon, Afrobeat guru and political revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti, let's just say that the cavernous Arie Crown Theater, in the mostly mothballed eastern end of McCormick Place, doesn't exactly rush to mind. Especially when that venue, presenting one of its very few public attractions in recent months, feels about 20 percent full.

When Adesola Osakalumi's Fela says, "Everybody say, yeah," which might be a very favorite moment among many in this masterful Broadway show from the great director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, which I've seen three times, his exhortation has to cross an energy-sapping moat where the orchestra would be, if this were, like, "Oklahoma."

But the fine "Fela!" musicians are fired up on stage, mostly indistinguishable from Fela's wives or the great, horn-blowin' man himself, and, alas, nobody thought to stick in some seats to fill the gap.

This theater, after its last renovation, has a far superior sound system to many venues in town.

But its sheer size (its stagehouse dwarfs the set) means it could not be a worse venue for a show that I remember as perhaps the most immersive experience of my long Broadway theater-going life thanks to a brilliant set from Marina Draghici.

It showed that if Fela Kuti, the Black President himself, could not be contained by the succession of brutal Nigerian dictatorships that feared his intelligence and charisma, then there was no reason for a show about his life to be contained to an arbitrary stage, not when you could transport people to the last set of the last night at The Shrine.

Even now, the performers give everything they've got. That includes Jones' astonishing, oft-counterintuitive suite of movement fused with attitude, zest and character, an incredibly potent match for Fela's musical blending of European jazz, African funk and African rhythm.

I suspect the ghost of Fela (who died of AIDS in 1997) somehow haunts the superb cast of "Fela!" willing them to give it all up and honor his Afrocentric memory, however much their energy might get lost in the rafters or however many empty seats they may see on a frigid Chicago night.

This new tour, which features Michelle Williams in the role of Sandra, one of the many African-American sisters who turned Kuti's head during his formative years stateside, remains an Equity show with a stellar cast, many of whom have sung, played and danced with this piece since its origins in 2009.

Osakalumi is a tad more measured and ensemble-oriented than the original star, Sahr Ngaujah, but he's also a terrific Fela, emotionally centered and with the right blend of anger and showmanship, given that Fela was one part Nelson Mandela with his own microphone, and one part Liberace with a sax.

Although she has star billing, Williams is not in the kind of major role that would satisfy anyone who comes thinking this is a vehicle for her talents, but she makes Sandra pop far more than I've previously seen.

You get her unusual but very apt singing style and an unselfish performance from a gorgeous performer who not only moves well but seems to understand that Fela is the master of these Afrobeat musical ceremonies.

Oh, where is the under-used New Regal Theater when so badly needed?

Clearly, the passionate producers of "Fela!" are trying to reach an African-American audience, as this show could and should. This is a singularly experiential piece of theater with a deep spiritual core, a rich awareness of the perils and potency of political action, and a message condemning violence and promoting love, an emotion (not to mention an act) that Fela most certainly embraced with a fervor and regularity that few of us could match.

I had fantasies of a packed-to-the-gills New Regal, dancing with Fela, and the political, affirmative party spilling out at the end of the night, happily, peacefully, joyously, onto 79th Street.


When:
Through Saturday
Where: Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $20-70 at 312-791-6320 or felaonbroadway.com