Waaka the musical, which is showing for the next five days in London, has already done well in Nigeria, where its rags to glory, to glory to rags and glory story has gone down well. Playing at the Shaw Theatre, slightly off the beaten track for denizens of theatreland, the musical packs a lot into its two hours.
An ambitious production, Waaka balances a tightrope of trying to please both a Nigerian audience and a non-Nigerian one, and succeeds often, though this is emphatically a production and musical that will be a delight to anyone who has followed the hitlist of Afrobeat tracks in Nigeria for the past ten years or more. With musical allusions to Fela, music by Sunny Ade, and other older singers and genres in African popular music, Waaka is a crowdpleaser that hits good notes very often over its two hours. With an all Nigerian cast, from Lagos, homegrown talent is on show.
Waaka follows the fortunes of four university graduates as the try to make it by any means necessary, hampered both by the vagaries of life as much as their own flawed characters. While there’s a clear story here, a note of disappointment is that not all the characters are fully drawn or have stories of their own; that said most of them travel an emotional journey filled with ups and downs that provide the hook for several moments of hilarity. While many of the references in song and speech will certainly be richer for an insider, there is a lot in Waaka for the layperson or those new to Nigerian musicals and culture. Certainly, the story is told with a lot of pizzazz and panache; humour is the dominant theme of the production, underscored by musical numbers that wink playfully at the audience. (Jolomi Amuka) shines as Rex, the louche braggard whose loose ambition finally undoes him; the two characters whose love story drives much of the narrative Tosan are played well by (Patrick Diabuah) and (Arese Emokpae) though it must be said Diabuah is a fine actor, but seems to struggle a little delivering the musical ballads. (Ade Laoye) who plays Ngozi, the more conscience of the group of friends is given precious few moments to shine, but is played with good grace. Among the stellar cast, the actors who play the double-crossing, older generation of political leaders, many times steal the show.
Most welcome is the balance between the type of stage ballads that lovers of European and American musicals will be used to and the genres of Nigerian music; the balance is a little lost in the second half of the production; if there is anything else to fault here it is that the musical sometimes sacrifices maintaining a fast pace for the sake of gaining a few more laughs – but there are laughs by the barrellful – though the musical also delivers a biting critique of the political and social set up in Nigeria; many of Fela’s songs of protest and derision make it into the show, “Lady’ and ‘Beasts of no Nation’ particularly. With a cast drawn mostly from Nigeria, and produced entirely by a Nigerian based crew, under the artistic direction of Bolanle Austen Peters, Waaka the Musical delivers a superlative spectacle that also satisfies as musical and theatre.