OFFBEAT: 'Fela!' return perfect for Black History Month

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-02-22T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: 'Fela!' return perfect for Black History MonthBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

The Arie Crown Theater, hidden along McCormick Place at 2301 South Lake Shore Drive, is the Chicago theater space I remember mentioned the most from my youth in the 1970s and 1980s, right along with The Shubert Theatre.

Big Broadway shows like "Peter Pan" and "Annie" played the space and major names such as Carol Channing in "Hello Dolly" and Yul Brynner in "The King and I" headlined.

But with the exception of a quick run of "The Color Purple" in 2009, Broadway shows just don't play the Arie Crown Theater much anymore.

But at least for this weekend, Broadway is back at the Arie Crown with with talent and fantastic music, choreography, costumes and lighting in the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical "Fela!" playing through Sunday.

As evidence of how great this show has been received, it just played Chicago a year ago for a three-week run at the Oriental Theatre.

Written by choreographer Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, the musical is based on compositions and lyrics by late Nigerian singer and activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Kuti was an originator of the "Afrobeat sound," a combination of traditional African rhythms, jazz, funk, percussion and vocal styles.

Until his death from AIDS at age 58 in 1997, his music and political agenda served as a catalyst for social change, with his messages about Nigeria's political injustice, military corruption and transition from colonialism to independence. And there were more than a million people who attended his funeral.

"Fela!" is based on the actual events at the height of the performer's musical and political influence in his homeland around 1977, when thousands of government soldiers were assigned to end his public performances at his legendary Lagos nightclub called The Shrine.

The musical premiered in New York City in November 2009, and in 2010, the Broadway production received 11 Tony Award nominations and won Best Choreography, Best Costume Design of a Musical, and Best Sound Design of a Musical.

With passing references to Frank Sinatra, "Fela!" offers a heart-pounding timeline of the events of the day, which by the 1980s, would have him creating music for his 1989 album for anti-apartheid called "Beasts of No Nation" challenging the most powerful leaders around the globe like President Ronald Reagan, Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha.

Always controversial (he had multiple wives and radical public opinions against government), his world is larger than life and difficult to capture in a 2 1/2-hour stage story. The audience needs to be familiar and well-read about the man inspiring this theatrical telling.

Entertaining, tragic and beautiful all at the same time, there are also lighter moments.

It is singer Michelle Williams, as the central female character, and I wasn't so impressed with her vocals for the required roller coaster of sounds and emotions it takes to handle the intricate musical numbers.

It is also the entire cast and atmosphere that create the magic of this musical. The set is stunning and the music that greets the audience as soon as they are being seated transports the group to another time and place, all of it captured with precision.

Favorite numbers include the opening "Everything Scatter," "Trouble Sleep," "Water No Get Enemy" and "Zombie."

"Fela!" is a musical that lives on in the heart and soul, long after the audience has left their seats.

Tickets are $20 to $70 at (800) 775-2000 or for tour dates and for tickets.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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