An energetic but emotionally empty ‘Motown the Musical’

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Twice a day, on the way to and from work, I pass the Oriental Theatre, where the national tour of Motown the Musical is running through August 9. Of all the shows that have played at the Oriental, this one is unique in that I constantly see couples, groups and families pausing when seeing the show’s marquee, grouping together and posing for a selfie. Clearly, Motown isn’t so much a record production label as it’s an icon of change and music revolution that taps into something resonant — an era gone by.

Arriving on the tidal wave of its hit Broadway run, Motown the Musical is pretty much what you’d expect from a vehicle designed to showcase a library of chart-toppers: a slick cavalcade of toe-tapping, hip-swaying tunes stitched together with a sketch of a storyline. What makes Motown the Musical a distinct challenge from most other Jukebox musicals are two factors. First, the massive catalog of material — Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., who wrote the musical’s book, had hundreds of top 10 hits to choose from, with artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder at his disposal. Where do you start? Second, Motown was instrumental in changing the sound of the airwaves during a seminal time in our country’s history. The story behind the music is just as, if not more, compelling than the music itself.

Whittling all this down for a three-hour show was surly no small feat — and what we’ve arrived at is frantic fractions of iconic musical performances jam-packed together (though, faithfully reproduced by a hard-working ensemble who play countless roles) into a condensed explosion of sound and light projected against the dimly lit backdrop of social change. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Interview with ‘Buyer & Cellar’ Star, Michael Urie

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Michael Urie in ‘Buyer and Cellar’

Actor Michael Urie is best known for his work as colorful and meddling assistant Marc St. James in the long running ABC series, Ugly Betty. His scenes with the statuesque Vanessa Williams exemplified two actors at the top of their game who clearly delight in being bad. However, Urie, a Julliard-trained actor, has significant stage credits, including notable Broadway runs in Angels in America and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Though, a seemingly underground play based on a strange-but-true pop-culture footnote quietly became a break-out hit for both playwright Jonathan Tolins and its star, Urie. Buyer & Cellar tells the story of a struggling actor (Urie) who takes on the oddest of odd jobs by working in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall (which is actually a real thing that exists in Ms. Streisand’s Malibu home). In doing so, he encounters the star and awkwardness and hilarity ensues.

After playing the role for more than 300 performances off-Broadway, Urie recently left the show to prepare for a multi-city tour, with the first stop in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, May 6 – June 15. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming Urie, who is clearly enthusiastic about this opportunity to bring this one-person comedy to new audiences across the country.

I see on Twitter that you’ve been exploring Chicago. What’s your experience been like?

This is actually my first visit to Chicago, and I’ve only had a few days to explore. There’s so much I want to do; so much I want to see. This really is a remarkable theatre town. Last night I went to Second City and caught their latest revue. It was so funny, and so polished! And they ended the act with a section of improv — which, as a performer, terrifies me. But they do it so, so well!

What about this show has made it such a hit? On paper, it seems so niche, very off-Broadway. Is it the Streisand factor?

Well, Steisand is what got the play on the map. Absolutely. But I think what’s kept it running is it’s simply good storytelling. It’s not a sketch — it’s a play. And Jonathan [Tolin, playwright] has done a great job making this story something that audiences respond to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard guys telling their dates, “I didn’t think I was gonna like this, but I really got into it.” It also requires people to use their imagination — as it’s a one man show, it requires an audience to fill in the characters I’m playing, and not many shows offer that opportunity. Too often everything is spoon fed to us and we become passive observers. You need to be actively engaged to follow this play’s twists and turns — and there are many.

Read the full interview on The Huffington Post >

‘Ghost the Musical’ National Tour: Nothing But Smoke and Mirrors

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I’m a fan of Ghost the Musical. Or, well, I was. At some point early into the first act of this first national tour, I turned to my friend and said, “I’m so sorry.”

Something happened between when I saw the show in London nearly two years ago and this non-Equity tour, now playing through January 19 at the Oriental Theatre. Here’s what I wrote about the show then:

Yes, Ghost the Musical is based on the iconic 1990 blockbuster, and has every potential to be a disaster, but they’ve managed to rethink the movie for the stage, and, for the most part, it works. Yes, the plot is still rather trite and the clay pot scene does make an appearance (how could it not?), but the show has found its own theatrical language to tell the story — and it’s jaw-dropping.

Most of the kudos must go to the design team (which includes a lighting designer, a video and projection designer, a movement sequence coordinator and, for good measure, an illusionist) who’ve done wonders to make director Matthew Warchus’ highly technical vision come to life. I mean — it’s a marvel of a show to look at. I can’t recall a time when my mouth has sat agape for so long. I may have drooled on myself. Moving LED screens, onstage holograms, smoke that comes and goes on cue. Wow. It’s like being trapped in a third-dimensional world where virtual life and the afterlife are one in the same.

Part of my interest in visiting this tour is to see how they scaled down the massive design for easy load-in. For the most part, the basic visual concepts are still intact, but watered down. Gone is the complex LED screen system that envelopes and drives the action, and instead is a single unit in the cramped upstage. Holograms and illusions are still in place, but less expertly applied. Ashley Wallen and Liam Steel’s strikingly angular choreography, which demands unfaltering precision timed with video projections, feels sloppy. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

HuffPo Review: A Heartbreaking and Healing ‘Once’ at the Oriental Theatre

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You’d be hard pressed to think of anything more intimate than the act of making music. Through music, one exposes themselves in a way that transcends mere talking or movement. It’s the ultimate exposure of one’s soul. And such rawness makes for compelling storytelling.

Once, the 2012 Best Musical Tony winner based on the 2006 Irish film, celebrates music’s innate power. Chicago is lucky to host the stellar first national tour of this stunning new work for a short few weeks, and it’s a must-see.

Directed by John Tiffany with book by Enda Walsh and songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once offers an unlikely love story between two lost souls who find each other through music — and rediscover themselves along the way. And oh what music it is. Featuring an ensemble of equally talented actor-singer-musicians, this is the kind of show that must give casting directors nightmares. And the cast of this first-rate national tour possibly couldn’t be bettered. Read the full review here >

HuffPo Review: High-energy Evita needs a touch of star quality

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Evita is a touchstone in the modern musical theater canon. When the sung-through rock opera debuted in the late ’70s, it broke many rules. A musical about a polarizing political icon featuring a score (by a young and ambitious Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborator Tim Rice) that required the lead actress to rock belt for 2.5 hours? Audiences had never seen or heard anything like it. Critics were divided, but it found an audience and ran for years, and was made into a (tepid) feature film starring none other than Madonna.

And 30-plus years later, the show holds up remarkably well. Especially in a promising all-new production launching its national tour at the Oriental Theatre.

Sure, the story, which follows the iconic Argentinian political icon’s rapid ascent to power before meeting her early demise due to cancer stage 33, is a rather one-note affair. Five minutes into the second act, it’s a slow and anticlimactic descent into an untimely conclusion. But the score and, if done right, the power of the performances and the staging make up for any shortcomings in storytelling.

This first national tour mostly recreates the recent revival, which received strong critical notices in London, where it premiered, but proved a financial failure when it transferred to Broadway, despite the casting of Ricky Martin (who isn’t in this tour). This production consciously breaks free from the original Hal Prince staging that so many subsequent productions followed — including a knockout production I saw in Germany back in 2001 (Evita sung in German is intense). Where Prince’s production was essentially staged in a minimalist black box with harsh lighting and steel frames, this revival, directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, chooses sunnier tones, as if to suggest Buenos Aires’ vibrant Latin flavor and heat, which drew little Eva Duarte to the big city in the first place. Read full review on The Huffington Post >

HuffPo Review: Rachel York leads a deliciously zany ‘Anything Goes’

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Anything Goes is one of those shows that never takes itself too seriously. It isn’t afraid to get a little bawdy and bend the rules — but it always comes out on top, full of class, champagne bubbles and loads of style.

In describing the show, I’m also describing the show’s star. Rachel York is an actress whom I’ve admired for years. I bet dollars to donuts if she were working during the golden age of Broadway, she’d be a household name in the likes of Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell. A winning smile, comedic chops, a voice as comfortable belting out a Cole Porter showstopper as it is crooning a Sondheim ballad and legs for days, York is a star in every sense of the word. And as the evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer Reno Sweeney, York has landed a role that fits as snug as her gorgeous Martin Pakledina-designed gowns.

I was lucky enough to catch the 2011 Broadway revival, on which this national tour is based, starring the wholesome and eager-to-please Sutton Foster. While I enjoyed Foster (who’s a better hoofer than York, but York fakes it damn well), she seemed to be working hard playing against type. York already has the glamour part down, and she plays with it by making her Reno a bawdy, wise-cracking affair.

In most cases when a star this bright leaves the stage, the show sags. Not here. In this first-rate national tour, the colorful supporting cast keeps all the balls in the air,which is essential when dealing with a musical comedy as madcap as this one. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

A sometimes breathtaking ‘Big Fish’ has yet to hook into its story

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Who doesn’t enjoy a good story? It’s why we love the theatre. Through words, music, dance and imagination, theatre helps shape a shared moment. It transports us to another place and time — or helps us sort out our sobering reality. It’s magical.

The pre-Broadway musical Big Fish, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 movie of the same name, offers huge potential to explore the power of storytelling. Edward Bloom, played by the predictable but often excellent Norbert Leo Butz, is a small town man with big dreams. He’s the kind of guy who, in his quest to track down the love of his life (the radiant Kate Baldwin), he travels cross-country with the circus for three years, and is ultimately shot out of a cannon to request her hand in marriage.

Or did he?

Edward’s pragmatic son, Will (the excellent Bobby Steggert) has had enough. A hard-hitting journalist, he craves honesty and sincerity. “He’s a stranger I know well,” says Will when describing his father. Sick of being a footnote in his father’s tall tales, Will removes himself from the plot. But when Edward faces a grim diagnosis that threatens to cut short his destiny, Will returns with the goal of unlocking the mystery — to see if Edward’s stories are, in fact, a smoke screen concealing something dark within.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with a score by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, Big Fish has a long way before it finds the story it wants to tell. Is this a love story? A story about the innate need to pass on one’s legacy? A wacky, episodic journey? All of the above? Right now it’s not entirely clear.

The good news is the show ends so strongly, you almost forgive the shoddy first act. With tears in my eyes following a highly charged final moment, I knew the creators had huge potential for a unique and powerful new musical.

However, as Edward Bloom would no doubt attest to, a good story demands a compelling opener. And right now, Big Fish flounders its way in hooking into a narrative through-line, only finding its footing somewhere in act two.

That’s not to say the creators should throw this Fish back into the water. Excellent moments pepper the first act, including a beautiful number between Edward and Sandra when they first lock eyes, “Time Stops.” In fact, Lippa’s best contributions are the quiet, introspective moments. Despite all the spectacle (though I think the creative team could go much further with the fantastical elements), the most spine-chilling moment takes place when Baldwin sings a simple song to her dying husband, “I Don’t Need a Roof.” The reason it works? It’s excellent storytelling.

In short: Big Fish needs to find its story.

“Big Fish” plays through May 5 at the Oriental Theatre. More info here >

HuffPo Review: ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Tour Features a Star-Making Performance

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Sometimes all you need is a star-making performance to make a show. The fresh-faced and ideally cast Stephen Anthony, who plays infamous con man Frank Abagnale Jr., offers such a performance in the first national tour of Catch Me If You Can which is playing through April 14 at the Cadillac Place Theatre. While Anthony takes a while to find his footing, mostly due to the inherent problems with the show’s structure, by act two we are firmly rooting for this kid, criminal or not.

This is my first time seeing any incarnation of this musical, which is based on the 2002 film and had a short life on Broadway. However, I feel I’ve seen this show before — at least the music gives that impression. Songwriting duo Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) know how to write a bouncy, jaunty tune, filled with clever pop culture references and brassy horn sections. However, large chunks of it sound like material from their big hit, Hairspray and, more recently, their work on NBC’s Smash. In fact, a duet between Abagnale Jr. and his father had entire musical phrases lifted from the duet between papa and mama Turnblad in Hairspray, “You’re Timeless to Me.”

Another core problem with the show is the creators’ decision to use a late 1950s variety show format to present Abagnale Jr.’s high-paced con life. It’s a fun, musical concept that offers moments for Jerry Mitchell’s kick lines and William Ivey Long-clad chorus girls, but the inherent slickness glosses over those rare, meaningful moments that should pull us into what drives Abagnale Jr. to became one of the world’s most sought-after imposters at the age of 16. Read the full review at The Huffington Post >

HuffPo Review: A Drag-tastic ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ Pulls out All The Stops

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While I’m not sure how much it cost to produce the national tour of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I’d wager that a sizable, of not primary, chunk of the change went into the show’s outlandish costumes and towering wigs.

Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who also designed the costumes for the movie on which the musical is based, pull out all the stops. A parade of eye-poppingly fantastical outfits, often fashioned from found objects such as sandals, beach balls and balloons, strut front-and-center in this crowd-pleaser, which is playing at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre through March 30.

And as the dynamo trio of ladysingers (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) wail through our favorite gay anthems such as “It’s Raining Men” and “I Will Survive,” often while floating high above the stage, you can’t help but sing along.

But this musical, which was a blazing hit in Australia before it came to the states, is more than just platform shoes, glitter and campy costumes.

There’s a big heart under all that frock.

Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Pre-Broadway Jekyll & Hyde Better Suited for the Vegas Strip

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Due to work obligations, I couldn’t make press opening of the national tour of Jekyll & Hyde, which is set for a Broadway revival following a two-week Chicago engagement. So, I turned the review reins over to my dear friend, and book blogger celebrity, Jamie Prahl, to review. Here’s what she had to say:

Simply put, Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse’s Jekyll & Hyde isn’t a very good musical.

Yet, since the show’s debut as a 1990 concept album, it has gained die-hard fans (called “Jekkies”) and been produced around the world despite the fact that it’s a show with serious issues.

Jekyll & Hyde obviously strives to be a sweeping gothic musical romance a la The Phantom of the Opera. Based loosely on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the plot possesses everything that should be needed to build a great piece of theater. In Victorian England, Dr. Henry Jekyll has discovered a chemical combination that can separate the good and evil parts of a person. When the snooty and hypocritical Board of Governors refuses his request to test the potion one of the poor souls left to die in the city’s asylums, Jekyll takes matters into his own hands and becomes his own test subject, launching his demented and murderous alter-ego Edward Hyde onto the streets of London. As Jekyll and Hyde take control of the same man, an alluring prostitute enters the mix, and Jekyll’s life, including his future with his loving fiancee, is thrown into chaos.

Murder! Romance! Chemistry! Prostitutes! What else do you need? Unfortunately, Wildhorn and Bricusse’s version of Jekyll & Hyde is burdened by a book that fails in building any sense of danger, some downright terrible lyrics, and a score distractingly heavy on easy listening power-ballads.

When I walked in to opening night of new pre-Broadway production, I thought maybe this production would have magically solved all the problems of the show and turned it into a respectable dame.

Nope.

Director Jeff Calhoun and his assembled creative team have instead attempted to gloss over the faults of the show with a stylish remount. Per a man sitting near me, they “really ramped up the Rock and Roll stuff.” I assume he was referring to the copious use of fog, the black eyeliner all the male ensemble members seemed to be wearing, and the maid uniforms that weren’t too far removed from dominatrix gear. As a suggestion to the producers, perhaps the seedy glamor of Las Vegas would be a more suitable home for this musical than Broadway.

The cast does their very best. Jekyll/Hyde is a massive and challenging role, but American Idol finalist turned Tony-nominated Broadway performer Constantine Maroulis is eager and energetic and an undeniably powerful singer. He sings the heck out of his numerous songs, every one of which seems to end with a soaring nigh note. Unfortunately, Maroulis is saddled with a script that lacks any real depth. (Also, his accent could use some work. I’m still not entirely sure if Henry Jekyll is supposed to be English, Irish, or German. The show’s accents, as a rule, are shaky and inconsistent.)

In the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role of Lucy, Canadian R&B singer Deborah Cox is obviously vocally worthy of standing in the shoes of a role created by/for Linda Eder, but her performance lacks any passion or urgency. When the terrifying Hyde enters Lucy’s life, she simply doesn’t seem that alarmed. She loves Jekyll enough to sing about him, but when he tells her to leave London immediately because her life is in danger, she only seems mildly pleased at the idea of leaving the brothel behind and slowly packs while, of course, singing a giant ballad. (Spoiler: I couldn’t help thinking that if she’d packed a little faster and skipped the song, she’d have survived the show.)

Completing the show’s central love triangle is Wicked veteran Teal Wicks as Emma, Jekyll’s plucky high society fiancee. Wicks is radiant, and possesses a voice every bit worthy of her two higher-billed co-stars. I must also call out Laird Mackintosh and Richard White for offering strong support, despite their thankless roles.

Jeff Calhoun’s direction is occasionally shaky, as is most evident when the show’s two leading ladies belt one of the show’s most famous anthems, “In His Eyes.” To their credit, Wicks and Cox deliver the vocal pyrotechnics despite staging that has them weirdly wandering around 2/3 of the stage. The big production number, “Bring on the Men,” lacks any oomph and, despite being set in a brothel, isn’t actually sexy.

Historically, the climactic “Confrontation” sequence is done with the leading actor battling himself as both Jekyll and Hyde. In this outing, a giant video of Hyde is projected behind Maroulis as Jekyll, who argues with it. Maroulis does everything he can, but it just doesn’t work — which is a pretty good summary of this show in general. There’s only so many talented singers you can hire, so much fog you can pump into a theater, and so much black eyeliner you can put on a sub-par show.

“Jekyll & Hyde” plays through March 24 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info here >

HuffPo Review: A Grand ‘War Horse’ and Giddy ‘Book of Mormon’ Burst Into Chicago

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The theatrical year in Chicago has ended in full gallop with two highly anticipated shows receiving full-scale, top-notch productions, playing through the new year.

War Horse, the breathtaking international hit that took London and Broadway by storm, and the Broadway blockbuster The Book of Mormon, which is now bursting into Chicago with a sure-fire Chicago resident production, are both must-see productions. But for completely different reasons.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from the Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel, War Horse was originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007 before moving to its Tony-winning hit run in New York’s Lincoln Center. And, quite simply, it’s the reason theatre exists. This epic-yet-straightforward tale of a boy and his horse who are separated and united by a war (WWI, to be exact) is told with such craft, such magnificent theatrically, it’s all you can do to sit and marvel. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

‘The Grinch’ growls in flat touring production

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Stefan Karl is the Grinch in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a Grinch this holiday season. And I fully embrace my Grinchy-ness. Sometimes, we need to separate ourselves from the joy and merriment that overwhelms the season. All that singing, noise-making, jingle-belling. E. Nuf. Bring on the seasonal schadenfreude.

So, I completely support where the grumpy green one is coming from. And in the musical version of the Dr. Seuss classic penned by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) and Mel Marvin (music), we have the larger-than-life Stefan Karl as Mr. Grinch. Karl delivers the grand, menacing, campy performance we all expect – a mean one whom we love to hate, but eventually learn to love. He’s scary but scarred. Angry but anguished.

In addition to Karl, we have angelic-voiced Jenna Iacono as Cindy-Lou Who, who, just like the Grinch, managed to melt my heart. I also found her bio a joy: she’s working on her black belt in Tae Kwon Do and wishes to work with Robert Downey, Jr. In other words, she’s my kind of Who.

Aside from Karl and Iacono, this musical adaptation, directed by Matt August, is as stiff and one-dimensional as its sets (by John Lee Beatty). Yes, we gain some additional insight into the Grinch’s Machiavellian motivations, and the telling of the tale by the Grinch’s trusty hound Max (the appealing Bob Lauder) as a sort of memory play are smart and welcome additions, but, for a 90-minute one-act, there’s a lot of fluff (not unlike the stuff pumped from the Caddy Palace’s ceilings in the final moments to remind us that Christmas=snow).

I mean, the Whos are merely an incessantly joyous device for the Grinch to react to. And, well, aside from Cindy-Lou, they’re all kind of annoying. The only creature with any real passion — misguided or not — is the Grinch. So when the Grinch does become (spoiler!) a jolly fellow, you feel his heart has been sucked dry, rather than filled three times bigger.

While kids and families seemed to enjoy themselves, I say save your cash and revisit the book or beloved cartoon with a cup of (spiked) eggnog.

“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical” plays through December 16 at the Cadillac Place Theatre. More info here >;

HuffPo Review: Delightful ‘Kinky Boots’ Kicks Up Its Heels in Pre-Broadway Engagement


Stark Sands and Billy Porter next to some kinky boots

Forget fancy names like Cyndi Lauper. If there’s a single compelling reason to see Kinky Boots, a lively new musical based on a 2005 British comedic film that’s currently making its pre-Broadway tryout at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater, it’s Billy Porter’s bravura turn as sassy drag queen Lola.

Lola serves as both muse and catalyst for breathing life into a failing rural England shoe factory — a family businesses handed down from the beloved and deceased owner to his reluctant son, Charlie (the likeable but bland Stark Sands) who, in a last-ditch effort, transforms their outdated product to fill an untapped, niche market: transvestites.

As embodied by Porter, Lola is a star-making performance that gives this full-voiced, explosive performer something to sink his stiletto heels into. Mark my words: look for Porter come Tony time. Read the full review here >

HuffPo Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ Turns Up the Volume at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse

It’s another summer in Chicago, so that means a visit from the touring production of the hit head-banger musical Rock of Ages. This crowd-pleasing show, which is now a major motion picture, kick started its national tour in Chicago in 2010. Then, last year, the non-Equity version of that tour played for a short stint at the Cadillac Palace. And now, that tour is back with a vengeance, rocking out for the summer in the much cozier Broadway Playhouse next to Chicago’s Water Tower Place. And this go ’round, it has finally found a home that fits like a leather, fingerless glove, complete with buckles and metal studs. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Chicago Like a Local: ‘Fela!’ at the Oriental Theatre

Fela!, which started as an Off-Broadway show in 2008 and has grown into an international sensation (and is now playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through April 15), follows the life of Afrobeat Nigerian legend and activist, Fela Kuti. The high-energy concert/musical/political play portrays Kuti in the days when his public performances at the legendary nightclub The Shrine were coming under fire by the Nigerian military. Continue reading at “Chicago Like a Local” >

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