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Michelle Williams finds a new voice in ‘Fela!’

Michelle Williams’ love for music was born in the St. Paul Church of God in Christ in Rockford, Ill.

As a member of the St. Paul choir, the budding performer became an incurable fan of gospel. And with the encouragement of her musically adventurous father, she soon picked up a huge range of musical styles, from Sting and Bon Jovi to the Yellowjackets and Chaka Khan.

It wasn’t long before Williams, 32, turned all those influences into a successful career. She joined Destiny’s Child in 1999, playing an integral role in one of the most successful pop groups of the past decade. Since then, she’s released three solo records and appeared in major musical theater productions on Broadway, in London’s West End and theaters across the United States.

On Friday and Saturday, fresh off an appearance with her Destiny’s Child colleagues at the Super Bowl in February, Williams will appear at Shea’s Performing Arts Center with the national tour of “Fela!” In that show, about the life and career of the influential Nigerian composer and singer Fela Kuti, Williams plays Kuti’s love interest Sandra.

In a phone interview, Williams said her career’s turn toward Broadway was unexpected.

“As a child, I just wanted to sing, not knowing that I would also be singing in Broadway musicals and not just on the stage to screaming teenagers,” she said. The structure of Broadway and the more liquid nature of pop performance are two different modes she’s equally comfortable with.

“With Broadway, you’ve got to really kind of stick to what’s written, all the notes. You can’t be doing a lot of free-styling and riffing unless the song calls for it. But Broadway is pretty straightforward and regular,” Williams said. “It ain’t church.”

Even so, Williams gets an opportunity to let loose in “Fela!” during a pair of songs, “Lover” and “Iba Orisa,” based on a traditional Yoruba chant.

“In two songs [in ‘Fela!’], they always tell me to do my thing and let go and I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ Because I grew up in church. I’m telling you, my ‘let go’ is church,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Do your thing.’ And I’m like, ‘Alright!’ ”

Williams’ character, based closely on the activist and musician Sandra Isadore, introduces Kuti (played on alternate nights by Adesola Osakalumi and Duain Richmond) to African-American culture after he moves to the United States.

“When he came to America, I’m the one he fell in love with. And then I just began to teach him things, studying books, reading about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Stokley Carmichael, just teaching him about our history and letting him know that we all have the same struggles, no matter what country,” she said. Of Kuti’s music, Williams said, “He’s like James Brown, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley in one person.”

Williams plans to release her fourth solo album, as yet untitled, in the summer. She said the project will include “some influences of everything I’ve done,” up to and including some echoes of Fela Kuti.


What: “Fela!”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

Tickets: $27.50 to $47.50

Info: 847-0850 or