FELA! directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. At the Canon (244 Victoria). To Nov 6. $35-$130, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 7 pm, matinees Saturday 2 pm and Sunday 1:30 pm. 416-872-1212. See listings. Rating: NNNN
A breathtaking celebration of the music, dance and politics of influential Nigerian Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti, this touring production is a feast for the eyes and ears, while also an introduction for many to this legendary musical innovator.
Unlike recent super-sized revival shows celebrating ABBA or Queen, Fela! needs no fictional narrative to deliver Kuti's hits. A deadly 1977 standoff with Nigeria's military dictatorship over his anti-government lyrics provides the dramatic backdrop. However, the straightforward unfolding of the story lacks a certain dramaturgical flare, and the picture painted of Kuti as a musical and political revolutionary trivializes his misogynistic tendencies and erases his fatal struggle with AIDS.
But these are quibbles when measured against the show's real stars: the music, dancing and lights. Among other impressive musical feats, the large stage band dissect the creation of Afrobeat. Fiery horns from African highlife, funk and soul guitars from America, and deep bass are introduced separately before integrating to reveal Kuti's signature sound.
Choreography by director/writer Bill T. Jones is nothing short of stellar. A smooth yet unpredictable synthesis of traditional African movement, modern and ballet make for a nearly non-stop spectacle. Colourful costumes by Marina Draghici and dazzling lighting tricks by Robert Wierzel further enhance the dancing.
Alternate Kuti Adesola Osakalumi (regular cast member Sahr Ngaujah had the night off) burst with charisma - and an impressive set of pipes - and had no trouble enlisting the audience in some call-and-response.