From the fitting sessions and rehearsals, the road to the glittering success of the London premiere of ‘Saro The Musical’ was paved with stellar talent and sheer hard work from both the organizers, cast and crew. Funke Olaode reports

Regarding her latest venture, the London premiere of ‘Saro the Musical’, you could safely conclude that all the lines dropped in pleasant places for Bolanle Austen-Peters, culture entrepreneur and owner of the famed Lagos culture hub, Terra Kulture. For one, she was returning to a city she had conquered last year with another production, Wakaa! It was the first Nigerian musical to grace a major theatre district in London. This time, she collaborated with MTN Foundation to showcase ‘Saro the Musical’ in London.

Wakaa! was able to break new grounds and transcend the demographic barriers of London theatrical landscape, showing that there is high demand for productions of African and indeed, Nigerian origin.

Number Two, she tied it neatly into the season largely linked to African-themed fiesta like the Notting Hill Carnival in London. Number Three, the producers of the award-winning Nigerian musical, ‘Saro’ capitalized on the teeming number of holidaying Nigerians and other Africans in the Diaspora to premiere the play to an enthralled audience.

The opening night on last Thursday, August 24 presented all the trappings of a fantastic production. Expectedly, the applause was loud coming from an appreciative audience who were very well entertained by a captivating, electrifying and superlative performance. The crowd was described by many as one of the largest at the theatre in recent times. You could place a safe bet on the Nigerians among them from the tone of their various traditional attire which they donned to support one of their own.
As early as 5 pm, the atmosphere at The Shaw Theatre in West London was charged with many Nigerians and Britons who trooped out to catch a glimpse of the stage play from the stable of Nigerian culture promoter, Bolanle Austen-Peters.
By any standard, a 70-man cast and crew is prodigious; and it is normal with a musical. The production which ran for six days was a master showpiece in dance and music. Led by three Nigerian culture personalities; the revered movie veteran, Bimbo Manuel, director and producer, Kunle Afolayan and prolific actor, Gideon Okeke, Saro is a celebration of Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage and history. It also highlights the unrelenting spirit of the Nigerian youth that has been the hallmark of the Nigerian creative industry despite a myriad of challenges and obstacles.

The period before the play began was equally important for the networking opportunities. The reception outside the magnificent Shaw Theatre became a friendship platform to mingle freely. At 7pm on-the-nose, silence enveloped the theatre which was filled to capacity as audience held their breath in anticipation of the opening of the well-publicized stage dance.
Performed on a one-of-its-kind custom-built stage, Saro traces and pays homage to Nigeria’s rich musical history by beautifully rendering some of the country’s greatest hits over the years, while also delivering its own ingeniously composed original music.

Dressed in lovely, colourful costumes that showcased the best of Nigerian fashion, the cast and crew provided a thrilling spectacle, giving life to the musical dance steps and songs which incorporated a mesmerizing fusion of African and Western sounds such as Afrobeat, Highlife, Juju, Apala, hip-hop and jazz.

Taking the audience through an unforgettable night, the cast and crew masterfully combined their impeccably choreographed dance routines and charged performances delivered by a talented and attractive cast. The play is a theatrical joy that gallops swiftly through its nine acts to tell the story of Lagos settlers.

Of course, the roof of the theatre was almost brought down when Fela’s look alike and his dancers stormed the stage to perform some of the late legend’s hit songs.

As the story line goes, Saro is a story of the African dream mixed with hope, self-will, love and determination. In Saro, the producer explored the journey of four young courageous village men who step out of their comfort zone, in search of success, to city life in Lagos. A devastating experience lands them in the lap of destiny, success ignites them and love fuels them. The musical highlights the spirit and rich cultural heritage of Lagos through music and dance. Saro paints the honest picture of life in the city, the ups and downs, the smiles and the tears. Saro takes you on a roller-coaster of emotions through stellar acting, spectacular African costumes, vibrating dancing and music. Saro as a play speaks the universal language of music. It is a realistic exposure of characters that are relatable with a warmth that draws you into their world.

Weaving together the trials, misfortunes, loves, and destinies of the foursome into a nine act masterpiece, Saro tells the inspiring story of the journey to success in a harsh, unwelcoming city; as the audience saw Lagos personified by numerous colorful and unforgettable characters, frenetic pace of living, and endless drama. The show closed to a standing ovation and delighted calls for an encore.

Kudos to the organisers, audiences in the UK, Nigeria and across the world would continue to enjoy a fantastic time as experience has clearly shown that Nigerian stories resonate and people want to see and hear tales about Nigeria’s beautiful culture. And with productions like ‘Saro’- written and produced by Nigerians, the country is taking ownership and telling her stories.

The event was a huge success. Technically, the theatre was superb as each scene depicted the setting through a large screen in the background. Bob Manuel, the veteran actor who acted the ‘Don’ also didn’t disappoint as he brought many years of acting experience on stage. Kunle Afolayan was also at his best while Tinsel darling, Gideon Okeke put in his best. Ade Laoye who acted Jane and one of the dancers, Dolapo Phillips also made the audience roar with laughter throughout the three-hour entertainment.

From the fitting sessions and rehearsals, the road to glittering success for this year’s edition of the stage play was paved with stellar talent, sheer hard work from both the organizers, cast and crew. Spanning months of preparation, it was another grueling season of grounding which Austen-Peters has become used to since she traded her law degree and diplomatic career for promotion of indigenous plays.

Basking in the euphoria of a successful outing, Corporate Relations Executive of MTN, Tobe Okigbo said MTN is desirous of promoting Nigerian culture. “What Saro, Wakaa and Kakadu are doing to the Nigerian image internationally is impressive. In terms of ingenuity and strength, acting and Nollywood are promoting Nigerian arts and culture positively. The cast members are credible, the directing, and everything is excellent. This is MTN Foundation way of contributing to the positive image of Nigeria because we are exposing the cast to the international audience. If anything happens there, film directors or producers can spot talents who may end up on Broadway. This may be a turning point in their career. Essentially, it is like showcasing the best of Nigeria. This is not about ‘Nigeria as the most corrupt country or about insurgency.’ As a Nigerian brand, MTN is saying this is who we are,” Okigbo said

The Executive Secretary, MTN Foundation, Nonny Ugboma spoke in the same vein. She noted that “Nigeria is witnessing a revival of sorts in the quality and popularity of theatre and we are honoured to be part of this renaissance. We successfully partnered with BAP Productions on the premieres of two musicals.

Corroborating Ugboma, a director with the Foundation, Mrs. Aishatu Sadauki said apart from promoting arts and culture, the motive behind the Foundation’s support is to promote Nigeria’s image. “You know arts, culture and music are fascinating areas and there are so much talents. When I was a girl, my sister wanted to do music but my parents refused. Arts, music and culture is another way of expression. This is just the beginning because what we are doing is a drop in the ocean as other corporate organizations can also support. We are happy that we are doing well.”

Lending his voice, another director with the Foundation who was also a guest of honour in the six-day stage fiesta, Hon. Reginald Chukwuemeka Okeya said MTN Foundation as a corporate body is involved in a lot of CSR projects and the London show was just one of them. “We have done it in South Africa and now London. We are determined as a Foundation to revolutionize Nigerian art and creative industry. The motive is to promote Nigerian culture. Wakaa gave us more leverage, it makes the brand more popular both within and outside Nigeria. This project will continue. The success so far has been excellent as an average Nigerian will know about MTN Foundation.”

Speaking on the renaissance that the art and culture industry in Nigeria is experiencing, Austen-Peters noted that her company is playing a great role in preserving and exporting Nigeria’s rich culture. “The unique mix of old and young acting talents and the deliberate effort and commitment of the entire team translates to this success story and we hope to achieve even greater feats,” she said.

While commending the producer and promoter of the show, movie producer abd director, Kunle Afolayan, said “I have done stage in the past, but having been behind the camera in the past few years, this outing was very refreshing for me.”
The play drew many notable Nigerians among whom were Chairperson, First Bank, Nigeria Plc., Mrs. Ibukun Awosika, Managing Director, Standard Chartered Bank, Mrs. Bola Adesola, Managing Director, NLNG, Mr. Tony Attah, First Minister, Nigerian High Commission in London, Mrs. Olufolakemi Abudurasaq, directors, MTN Foundation, Mrs. Aishatu Sadauki and Hon. Reginald Chukwuemeka Okeya, Mr. Tobe Okigbo, Mrs. Yewande Zaccheaus, Mrs. Nimi Akinkugbe, Mrs. Ekua Abudu and Mr. Toyin Subair among others.

With the diversification of Nigeria’s economy, the creative industry has taken center stage as a viable area for revenue generation. The sector has begun to attract more investors thereby giving visibility and access to the Nigerian market just as BAP productions continues to blaze the trail in the promotion and sustenance of Nigerian theatre, stimulating interest and participation by both government and private sector.

For Austen-Peters, her efforts in promoting indigenous play is made possible by sponsors, partners and government who have steadfastly supported the re-emergence of the arts, creative industry and cultural heritage. She believes Nigeria’s creativity will continue to be celebrated both locally and internationally and Nigeria will definitely become a major tourism destination.

Wakaa was first staged at Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos in 2013.