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Music Around Town: 'Fela!,' 'Maestro: Leonard Bernstein' And More05:49
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Sahr Ngaujah, an actor, portrays the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and performs at New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. (AP)
Sahr Ngaujah, an actor, portrays the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and performs at New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. (AP)

ArtsEmerson has been a game-changer in Boston, importing productions that we might not otherwise see — and in some cases giving them the time and space to develop their work.

This weekend brings two new productions — “Fela!” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein” — while the Celebrity Series brings the great Emerson String Quartet to town and the Boston Lyric Opera showcases a contemporary opera, “The Inspector.”

I saw “Fela!” in New York and loved it. The production here, at the Cutler Majestic through May 6, is a combination of the New York and London casts, including the charismatic Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti, a revolutionary world music artist from Nigeria who pioneered a blend of funk, jazz, African rock and anti-militarism. At one point, Kuti was married to 27 women and ran as a leftist candidate for president of Nigeria. He died of complications from AIDS in 1997 in his late 50s.

Aside from a clunky "and-then-I-died" narration, the director/choreographer Bill T. Jones does a sensational job of capturing Fela’s political and musical intensity, particularly in “Zombie,” where the military is equated with the soulless walking dead while the sexy singers dance up a storm.

The late composer Leonard Bernstein (AP)
The late composer Leonard Bernstein (AP)

The head of ArtsEmerson, Rob Orchard, was one of the men responsible for bringing Hershey Felder to the American Repertory Theater with shows about Gershwin and Chopin. Now “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein” gets the one-man treatment at the Paramount Theatre April 28 through May 20. Gershwin was a lot of fun, Chopin was not, but judging from a couple of YouTube clips, Felder was a lot more comfortable back in the 20th century.

Members of the prize-winning Emerson String Quartet are, from left, violinist Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer. (AP)
Members of the prize-winning Emerson String Quartet are, from left, violinist Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer. (AP)

The Emerson String Quartet, one of the great string quartets in the world, maybe the greatest, makes its annual visit to the Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall Friday night, April 27, when the group will be playing Haydn, Beethoven and the Boston premiere of a contemporary piece by celebrated composer Thomas Ades. I try never to miss the Emersons –- I think they’re a great combination of elegance and lyricism. Listening to them is like listening to a sharp, passionate conversation among four incredibly sympatico people.

Alas, cellist David Finckel has announced that he’s leaving the quartet, so this will be one of the last times we get a chance to see this incarnation of the group.

In this image provided by The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, From left, Sarah Larsen as Sarelda, Anne-Carolyn Bird as Beatrice, Robert Orth as Mayor Fazzobaldi, William Sharp as Cosimo, and Vale Rideout as Tancredi, perform in a dress rehearsal for the Opera "The Inspector." (AP)
In this image provided by The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, From left, Sarah Larsen as Sarelda, Anne-Carolyn Bird as Beatrice, Robert Orth as Mayor Fazzobaldi, William Sharp as Cosimo, and Vale Rideout as Tancredi, perform in a dress rehearsal for the Opera "The Inspector." (AP)

Composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell had the right idea in adapting Gogol’s 19th-century comedy, “The Inspector General” (aka “The Government Inspector”) — infused with the send-up of high crimes and misdemeanors with a contemporary feel and a Shostakovich-meets-Mancini score.

Unfortunately their opera, "The Inspector," a Boston Lyric Opera adaptation of a Wolf Trap production at the Shubert Theatre through April 29, is never more than cute and is usually less than that. The musical language is less interesting than the average rock musical, the rhyming will never be confused with Stephen Sondheim’s, and the story of corrupt officials in a small town slow-paced and predictable, even with the action transposed to Mussolini’s Italy.

At least the production is enjoyable, particularly the singing of Jake Gardner as the mayor and Victoria Livengood as the livin’ bad mayor’s wife.

This program aired on April 26, 2012.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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