Yinka Olatunbosun writes on the second season of the most sought-after theatre production in Nigeria, Saro the Musical

Soon, the world will start talking about the Saro phenomenon that attracted fun-seeking families, friends and couples to the Shell Hall, MUSON centre, Lagos for six days. The 100-man cast production is a rare kind, evolving as the next Fela! on Broadway. The crowd at the ticket stand was enormous each day and the big parking lots were almost inadequate for the vehicles that arrived at each show. Saro has penned its name as the longest-running theatre production with 13 shows. About an hour to a show, tickets were already sold out. It was quite incredible to see how people responded to the family-friendly drama given the unpleasant history Nigeria has in theatre culture. Whenever would-be members of the audience were told that the regular tickets were sold out, they would queue up to buy the VIP and VVIP tickets which of course cost more. This sudden and welcomed change to Nigerian theatre has been made possible by the cultural activist and Executive Producer, Saro The Musical, Bolanle Austen-Peters.

Austen-Peters had paid her dues to the industry. The Cultural centre, Terra Kulture, which she owns and manages, has been the home of theatrical productions. She would give the hall to artists at no cost to stage plays at a particular period of the year under the theme, Tiata @Terra. It was, and still is, the only place to go for stage plays every Sunday. There was no profit. It was her way of showing personal social responsibility. A former legal officer for the United Nations, this excelling woman of the art has quietly sown the seed for the new theatre revolution that Nigeria can now boast of.

Directed by Kenneth Uphopho, Saro the Musical, has enjoyed a successful showing at the grand ballroom of the Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island last year. It drew notable names in the Nigerian Arts sector, ambassadors and public service holders along with positive reviews from the media. The result was the nationwide clamour for the return of this obsessive musical. Nigerians in diaspora begged for the show to be exported but as it is, the play turned out to be part of the reason why some had to return home for the Easter holidays. The question is: What’s so special about Saro the Musical that accounted for all the hype?

In truth, the plot of Saro is an ordinary story told in an extraordinary way. It is the story of four young men in search of the greener pasture, better still, the Nigerian dream. They migrated to Lagos, the presumed land of opportunities, determined to make the most of their otherwise rustic music skills. And they did. That is all but it was not so simple. Inside the main plot were sub plots of romance, historical allusions and musical performances. In the musical, there is something for everyone. Without apologies, Saro has such cross-over appeal that has never been recorded in many existing plays in Nigeria. Well, you can say Saro played to the gallery by bringing aspects of Lagos heritage to the stage. Surely, the story of Lagos has been lost in the fluid transit of people who migrate to the city daily. A large percentage of Lagos residents are settlers who came to “hustle’’, completely oblivious to this story.

“In writing the story, the most natural thing that came to my mind was to come up with a story of the type of people that make up Lagos. We had to create emotions that depict love, success, failure, everyday life in Lagos, the beach, the police, motor park and all the things that make Lagos what it is,’’ Austen-Peters expressed in her opening remarks for Saro2.

“Most people in Lagos are not indigenes. Most of us came here in search of success; and that was what I decided to explore. If you look around, everyone wants to come to Lagos; there is something magical about Lagos. When they come into Lagos, all of a sudden, they become Lagosians. In exploring all these themes, I also wanted a story that reflects music and dance.’’

That she did. Most of the songs used in the production were popular songs that the audience could sing along. Interestingly too, most of the characters depicted in the drama are societal archetypes. Through the character of Don Ceeto (Bimbo Manuel), people could see the ace Nigerian music producers and record label owners such as Don Jazzy and Kenny Ogungbe. In Azeez, the audience could identify the artists, who were once lead vocalists in their group or top acts on their label who are tempted with seemingly better offers to move to another recording label. Through the four lead characters, the audience could empathise with budding artists in their struggle to “blow’’, that is get money and fame. They fantasise about their dreams which may include getting luxury apartments in posh areas, riding exotic cars and sealing mouth-watering deals. But the road to success is not hurdle-free. They come to realise that as artists, they are social climbers. They need to polish their looks, speech and adapt their music to suit popular taste. Beyond that, the story teaches a lot of values and virtues such as patience, unfailing love, trust and forgiveness.

Quite fascinating too is the use of electronic screens as backdrops. They easily revealed the locale of each scene and makes interpretations explicit. They also contributed to the good pace of the scene changes as stage hands didn’t have to struggle during blackout to carry bamboo trees and the likes that had been placed on stage. The down side to this was that some scenes come off looking like some super-imposition. But the costumes were modestly and appropriately used to establish each character. Also commendable were other the technical details paid to the work and we have the technical director, Carl Raccah to thank for that. In the area of lighting, the special effects lights like strobe did much good for the Saro group that donned sequined jackets that reflected against the psychedelic lights.

Audibility in Saro was fantastic. You could hear anywhere in the hall and that is not just a function of the microphone. Efforts had been put into proper enunciation and needless to say, the actors had clear vocal powers. The casting and music director deserve some praise for selecting artists whose voice textures complement each other in performing duets. Maybe that is why the audience remained vivacious till the end of the play.

The last scene of the musical left a big question: If Fela was alive, would he ever be on the bill to perform at an event in Nigeria and he would not be the last artist to come on stage? Perhaps, bringing Saro on stage after Fela’s performance in the drama was just an exaggeration of how big the group later emerged. That is very debatable and can be an argument for another day.

But on fact that cannot wait for another day is the brilliant marketing strategy imbued into the production. Trending on twitter and other social media platforms, the audience who arrived early for the show could watch the tweets on Saro on the big screens and even tweet about it during or after the show. It was a smart way of advertising the show at no cost through the network of fans that had been built.

While Austen-Peters may have contributed her quota to the theatre industry, there is still a need for concerned authorities to rise up to the bill. The musical was performed on a custom-built stage at Shell Hall, the larger of the two halls at MUSON Centre, where there are no raked seats. With the exception of those on the front row, the members of the audience had to peek in between heads to see the actors. That would not be necessary if there were theatre venues, longed clamoured for, in the city. Nigerian audience is ready to revive the theatre culture but if they are not met half-way, they will likely return to the comfort of their homes and watch their DVDs, however substandard most of them are. For those who missed Saro2, there is Saro3 but only in December.