360TheatreReview: Wakaa!

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In April, Wakaa! came back, and it was better than ever.

When you live in Lagos, to get access to the best stuff, sometimes you have to travel to London.

And this isn’t just true for luxury items or refined products. Apparently home grown entertainment, in the form of lavish indigenous musicals get a makeover when they land in the Queen’s own country.

When Wakaa! The Musical, the directorial debut of culture aficionado, Bolanle Austen Peters premiered amidst fanfare in 2015 at the Muson Centre, Lagos, it was a messy, cluttered affair. Rich in hype and lacking in depth, the original Wakaa! played like a college production, hosting a few great moments, but stretched too thin and too far beyond its acceptable running time. Months later, Wakaa! scored one of the hottest tickets in world theatre, a brief run in London’s famed West End.

The entire London edition was repackaged for another Lagos run, scheduled for every Sunday in the month of April, starting on the second, as well as the Easter holidays. Screenings have been co-opted into the list of activities celebrating Lagos state’s half a century of existence. Ms Austen-Peters serves on the Lagos at 50 planning committee.

From early viewings, it would seem that London indeed had all the fun as Wakaa! has been repackaged, retooled and rendered on a level significantly above what was on display the first time around. The mood at the newly commissioned Terra Kulture Arena is jovial and the opening scene is of smiling dancers dressed in costumes that cannot quite decide on staying modern or tilting ancient.

The cast of Wakaa! is still as large, with diverse plotlines that somehow come together to tell a story of modern Nigeria, but a lot of the fat has been excised too. The principal characters are Tosan, the idealistic (Patrick Diabuah), Rex, the mischievous (Jolomi Amuka), Kike, the shopaholic (Nengi Adoki) and Ngozi, the conscientious (Dolly Phillips). We meet them as they graduate from University and follow each of them as they come to the realisation that real life is many miles removed from the privileged bubble of school.

Tosan goes on to help his uncle, the ebullient, dyed in the wool politician, Otunba Sagay, contest elections and balances his budding political career with a love affair with Kike, the here-for-the-good-times vixen who coasts through life on her charms and isn’t above flirting with Rex, an ambitious fella who hightails it to London in search of fame and bright lights only to find that the grass isn’t exactly greener on the other side.

Each of these characters represent a snapshot of the Nigerian reality. Some are based on real life persons, like Mawuyon Ogun’s ebullient Mama Ke, obviously modelled after former first lady, Patience Jonathan, broken grammar and all, and Ozzy Agu’s Professor Jojoba, a cross carpeting, verbose speaking fiend based on the Honorable Patrick Obahiagbon. Bimbo Manuel’s delicious Sagay is of course every dubious politician to ever hold public office.

Written by Tunde Babalola and directed by Austen-Peters, this London edition brings glamour and escapism to the stage as popular music is used as a fulcrum to hold the story together. The music has been updated to accommodate huge hits by D’banj, Tekno and Olamide as well as classics from Psquare, Flavour and Fela. Always Fela. A particular scene is sobering in its frank brutality as the play makes use of actors portraying thieving politicians in masks of different wild animals to give literal meaning to Fela’s Beasts of no nation.

Because the show is for export, a lavish, impressively directed wedding scene mixes up different ethnic groups in an over eager bid to portray the diversity of Nigerian cultures. The actors are all in terrific form and deliver their lines and songs with flair.

Amuka’s Rex remains relatable despite his less than noble antics, Lord Frank is capable of melting an entire stadium with his voice, Bimbo Manuel has a lot of fun playing Sagay and Ade Laoye continues her impressive run of form in the role of the shady Cassandra which she takes over from Dolapo Oni.

The weak link here is Nengi Adoki in the role of Kike, one that was originated by The Voice Africa winner, A’rese Emokpae. Adoki does not quite have the charms or the verve to slink around in sexy burlesque influenced numbers and so the role is resized to accommodate her limitations. The result is that Kike is about the most uninteresting character of the lot.

Original compositions make their way into the still overlong production but the appeal of Wakaa! has always been getting the audience to sing and move along to familiar tunes. The script is treacly at times and the story moves into schmaltzy, improbable corners, but as supreme entertainment mixed with social observation, this edition of Wakaa! certainly delivers the goods.

Like our crude petroleum resource, quality entertainment can still be originated in these parts it seems. It just has to travel out first to get refined into optimum potential.

Read other reviews by Wilfred Okiche
Wilfred Okiche

Wilfred Okiche

Wilfred Okiche is a movie buff and music head. He is still waiting for that one record that will change his life and remains ever optimistic. You can follow him on Twitter @drwill20

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