Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams might get top-billing in Fela!, the Broadway musical that arrived in town last night at the Palace Theatre for a three-night stand. But Adesola Osakalumi, who plays Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, deserves all the accolades. Osakalumi, who played Fela when the play was on Broadway, commands attention from the moment he arrives on stage. Williams isn't as dynamic as his love interest, Sandra. Osakalumi never breaks character, even as he interacts with the audience and laughs and jokes with hecklers throughout the course of the play. Though it ultimately works better as a musical performance/concert than a document of the African singer’s life, Fela is so well-choreographed and performed, its shortcoming as a biography are a minor point of contention.
Much like a concert, the play begins as a band slowly matriculates on stage in anticipation of Fela’s arrival. Assisted by a group of colorful dancers, the musicians get the crowd into the groove by laying down a funky rhythm equally inspired by American R&B and traditional African rhythms. That was Fela’s gift — he essentially created Afrobeat. After studying jazz in England, he returned to his native Lagos and put together a band that would blend genres in new and inventive ways. To this extent, the play, which begins in 1978 and then flashes back so that Fela can narrate his history, serves as a biography and includes references to dates and places that provide some context.
But if the play’s first half has a clear chronology, the second half, which focuses on the death of Fela’s mother and increasing violence in Lagos, looses that thread. Though the songs (“Water No Get Enemy” and “Zombie,” in particular) are fantastic, the abstract nature of some of the scenes (including one in which Fela converses with the ghost of his mother) don’t effectively serve to develop the plot. Still, the play concludes with a rousing “Coffin for Head of State” — which inexplicably included a “coffin” for the Chardon schools — that puts an exclamation mark on a musically vibrant show.