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Theater Review (LA): Fela! at the Ahmanson

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Rarely has a show so fully earned its exclamation point. This concert/biography is ecstatic and explosive in equal measure. The driving beats from the phenomenal onstage band penetrate down to the marrow. The harrowing story digs into the soul. It all makes you want to get up and do something: dance, protest, or, to follow Fela Kuti’s own legendary example, both at the same time.

Adesola OsakalumiThe touring production’s return to the Ahmanson after only 18 months away is welcome and maybe even necessary. The effect of Bill T. Jones’ vision, Fela’s music, and the cast’s spirit gains with repeated viewings. The first time it’s easy to be distracted by the ways Jones, in his first work as director/choreographer, doesn’t play by the conventions of musical theater. The final sequence for instance is an extended fever dream that isn’t the clearest way to wrap up a life story. But it’s imaginative, inimitable, and altogether indelible.

Several of the nine female ensemble members have been with the show for all its incarnations. Their authority helps give distinction to the dance-only roles of the 27 women Fela married all at the same time. It’s fascinating material that isn’t developed. Neither is Fela’s relationship with his beloved mother, the famed activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, who died from injuries sustained when the Nigerian military threw her from a second-story window during a siege on Fela’s compound. The piece ignores altogether the illness which killed Fela, AIDS.

Jones isn’t interested in traditional story development, but he’s brilliant at making sure every aspect of the production lands. As Funmilayo, Melanie Marshall’s beautiful voice makes such a big impression, one feels the effect she much have had on Fela. Michelle Williams, formerly of the Destiny’s Child, lends her sparkling voice and bright presence to the role of Sandra, the African- American who introduced Fela to the work of Malcolm X and Angela Davis during Fela’s time in the states.

As Fela, Adesola Osakalumi doesn’t have the larger-than-life charisma of the role’s originator Sahr Ngaujah. Nonetheless he’s thoroughly impressive, helping to make the two-and-a-half hours fly by. Bill T. Jones’ essential theater piece continues to honor, and add to, the legacy of a leading cultural figure of the past fifty years.

Fela! plays through May 5 at the Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 628-2772

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About Jon Magaril