The world premiere musical Marley, based on the reggae giant Bob Marley, is jamming with righteous rhythms, spiritual power and a potent message about love, justice and revolution.
It is a particularly apt time and place to stage this important musical about a sharply-divided country in a city that has lately drawn international attention for its impoverished neighborhoods, racial inequality and angry, disenfranchised youth. What’s going on outside the theater impacts what happens onstage, intensifying the experience and relevance of Marley.
Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah serves as book writer and director of this bio-musical, which focuses on Marley’s two years in London, having left Jamaica after an assassination attempt on the musician, his wife Rita (Saycon Sengbloh) and friends.
The self-imposed exile in 1976 proved to be a time of creative reawakening for Marley, as well as a deepening of his religious faith in Rasta and its tenets of peace and “one love.” Living in a dank flat in Shepherd’s Bush, Marley wrote many of the songs that catapulted him to global fame—“Is This Love,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Waiting in Vain,” “Redemption Song,” “Jammin’” and “Could You Be Loved.” No saint, he also whooped it up a bit in what he called “Babylon”—having an affair with Miss World (Michaela Waters) and dabbling in the burgeoning punk rock movement.
Dutch singer Mitchell Brunings plays Marley in an uncanny performance that is not mere vocal impersonation, but captures the fervor, faith and contradictions of a man so dedicated to peace and freedom through music, but also hurting over the poverty and political unrest ravaging his Jamaica.
You sometimes have to shake yourself back to the reality that Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36, so convincing and immediate is Brunings’ performance. The same could be said for the entire cast, who embody the zeitgeist of the mid to late 1970s with the passion and crazy energy of the post-Woodstock era. It’s a uniformly inspired ensemble, and shout-outs include Sengbloh’s strong-willed and wise Rita Marley, Michael Rogers as a commanding Rasta Elder, Ano Okera bringing fun and humor to his portrayal of music producer Don Letts and Crystal Joy and Marcia Griffiths as Marley’s back-up singers who make their presence vividly known.
Scenic designer Neil Patel also captures the ‘70s with a set that is literally a groove. A turntable with a giant record (sporting the original Island record label, a nod to Marley producer and champion Chris Blackwell) spins center stage, moving the actors and the action like the revolution of time or the playing of an album.
The device succeeds because it keeps the show moving—which it desperately needs in an expository-laden first act—when the lion’s share of the stage business involves musicians performing and also allows for speedy and seamless scene changes. Additional visual pow is provided by curved tin walls that give a sense of Jamaica’s shantytowns and are also the screens for computer projections that range from native art and Marley’s lyrics to depictions of London and the Jamaican countryside. A tight, 9-piece band is situated at the top of the tin walls.
The first act of Marley could be tightened up and sharpened so it doesn’t seem so much Marley and Reggae 101. It crams in a lot of information and characters, outlining not only Marley’s family and friend dynamics, but the history of Island Records and a primer on the political scene in Jamaica.
May 8 – June 14
700 North Calvert St
Baltimore, MD 21202
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $19 – $64
Details and Tickets
or call 410 332-0033
But ah, the music—from the “Rastaman Chant,” “Revolution” and “War,” the musical celebrates the heady vibe and pointed lyrics of Marley’s songs. It is in the second act that Marley finds its rhythm, opening with a melancholy Marley strumming his guitar and composing “Running Away,” and moving onto a playful scene with his Miss World mistress (a sultry and aware Michael Waters) that leads to an aching duet between Marley and Rita, a mash-up of “No Woman No Cry” and “Waiting in Vain” that in atmosphere and delivery is one of the show’s highlights.
The second act builds momentum, depicting Marley’s spiritual journey and his heeding the call to activism to the “One Love” peace concert in Jamaica in 1978—a shattering, dizzying climax that reveals a man and his music at the peak of their power. By the time of the encore, a sing-along of “Three Little Birds,” “Get Up Stand Up” and “One Love,” you are stirred and moved by what one man, one voice can do.
Music can heal a soul, but can it do the same for a city, a nation? Marley poses this hopeful question, and also shows how unified activism helps bind the wounds of a people and a community torn apart and at war with itself.
Marley . Music and lyrics by Bob Marley . Written and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah . Featuring Kena Anae, Mitchell Brunings, Luke Forbes, Don Guillory, John Patrick Hayden, Khetanya Jati Henderson, David Heron, Jonathan Hooks, Crystal Joy, Mykal Kilgore, Michael Luwoye, John-Andrew Morrison, Ano Okera, Howard W. Overshown, Shayne Powell, Michael Rogers, Saycon Sengbloh, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Damian Thompson, Michaela Waters, Susan Kelechi Watson, Christopher Dews, Tracey Farrar, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Victoria Harper, Bill Hurlbut, Kyle Jackson, Jeff Kirkman III, Mawk, Allison Mclean, Marili Mejias, Olu Butterfly Woods
Music Supervisor: Kenny Seymour, Music Director: Jason Webb, Choreographer: Germaul Barnes, Set Designer: Neil Patel . Costume Designer: ESOSA . Lighting Designer: Michelle Habeck . Sound Designer: Shane Rettig . Projection Designer: Alex Koch . Wigs.Hair/Makeup Designer: J. Jaren Jaas . Dramaturgs: Oskar Eutis, Gavin Witt and Catherine María Rodríguez . Fight Director: Geoffrey Kent . Vocal Coach: Leigh Wilson Smiley . Acting Coach: Samantha Godfrey . Dance Captain: Khetanya Jati Henderson . Dialect Coach: Ano Okera . Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr, assisted by Gwen Gilliam. Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.