BALTIMORE, May 18, 2015 –Now at Baltimore’s Center Stage, “Marley” is the world premiere of the first original musical based on the life and music of cultural icon Bob Marley. The show is drawn from a book by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and already has ambitions for a Broadway run.
Similar to the way the Jimi Hendrix Experience hit American music culture after the legendary musician’s post-Woodstock exit to the British rock scene, Kwei-Armah’s exotic and deeply personal narrative captures Marley – his childhood cultural hero hailing from his roots in London – creating a storyline that unfolds as a complex and multilayered journey through perhaps the most creative and tumultuous period of Marley’s short and sometimes chaotic life.
Through an agreement with Blue Mountain Music and Tuff Gong Pictures, “Marley” features the original music composed by Bob Marley — including, among others, songs from Exodus, Kaya, and Rastaman Vibration, which were written during the period in which the production is set.
Looking back on his efforts to write this show and get it on stage, Kwei-Armah recalled the he “came to truly appreciate Bob Marley during my own period of transformation as an artist.” Writing this piece,” he continued, was his way “of paying tribute to all that I’ve learned from Marley over the years, and it is very humbling to have the opportunity to bring his story to the stage.”
“Marley” is more than a musical. It’s an historical travelogue that explores the pivotal six-year period – 1972 to 1978 – that follows this tortured Jamaican national icon from superstardom to exile in London. This strange trajectory occurs after he is drawn into a political maelstrom in his homeland, the battle between the reigning National Socialist Party led by Prime Minister Michael Manley and the competing pro-American National Labour Party led by CIA-backed candidate Edward Seaga.
At the request of Prime Minister Manley, Bob Marley was duped into performing a free Christmas concert in the waning days of 1976, a year that ended in violence as Marley became the target of an assassination attempt.
Such was the prominence of his activism and stardom that the word normally reserved exclusively for political heads of state – “assassination” – was used to describe the murder attempt on Marley, despite the prominence and sincerity of his naïve mantra, “We do not do politics.”
Clearly shaken by the violence occurring in his homeland, Marley left for London, where he spent nearly two years in self-imposed exile. “Marley” the musical chronicles this compelling story of a man forged by internal violence and political conflict who skillfully uses the international stage to redefine his artistic direction to become one of the 20th century’s greatest musical icons.
What makes this production of “Marley” unique is the choice of Mitchell Brunings to play the title role as well as the ensemble cast of over 30 musicians and other cast members. They perform together splendidly, despite having had to deal with setbacks due to the recent turmoil in Baltimore.
The play had been in rehearsal since late March and still needed the extra hours of final rehearsals that are typical for complex new shows approaching press night. Extra time was needed to tighten up a few remaining rough edges that remained in the new production, due the limited access to the facility and the broken rehearsal schedule caused by the recent curfew imposed on the city. Fortunately for cast, crew and audience alike, everything clicked into place.
International singing sensation Mitchell Brunings does an amazing job of channeling Bob Marley, despite his limited acting experience. First seen on Holland’s version of “The Voice,” Surinam-born Brunings got the immediate attention of director/writer Kwei-Armah when he was searching for the right individual to portray Marley on stage.
“When I first saw the YouTube clip of Mitchell singing ‘Redemption Song’ on ‘The Voice,’ I was mesmerized,” Kwei-Armah remembers. “I jumped on a plane and dashed to Holland to see him immediately. Having auditioned actors around the world for this role, I knew right away that he was a natural.”
Mitchell’s “soulful, gorgeous voice and deep respect for Bob’s music and life make him the perfect fit for this production,” Kwei-Armah noted, adding, “We’ve been assembling the cast and crew for this show, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with our team.”
As for the show itself, the performance we attended burst into vibrant, compelling life from the start, sparkling with top talent and energetic performances and spot-on portrayals of many key characters.
The only time the production seemed to miss the mark was when it somehow failed to convey to the audience a sense of the enormous crowds that greeted Marley at his climactic concerts, even as tragedy and violence marred the “Smile Jamaica” concert at National Heroes Park and the One Love peace concert at the National Stadium in Kingston. But ultimately, this was a minor issue.
Notable among “Marley’s” diverse cast of 32, the following performers distinguished themselves the evening we attended the show.
Playing Rita Marley is Saycon Sengbloh, an experienced Broadway performer with substantial stage credits including “Motown,” “Fela!,” “Hair,” “The Color Purple,” “Wicked” and “Aïda.” She really delivers in the show’s most emotionally touching duet with Brunings. In the process, she evokes the lyrics of “Waiting In Vain” from afar as she challenges Marley for his infidelity. For his part, he counters with “No Woman No Cry” from his refuge in London, right on the heels of his notorious affair with the then-reigning Ms World, Cindy Breakspeare, who is played to saucy perfection by Michaela Waters.
Fresh off of recent Broadway runs of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Stick Fly,” Don Guillory insightfully plays Don Taylor, Marley’s shrewd manager who ages visibly under the pressure of working with the mercurial and spendthrift superstar.
Contrasting with the unpolished Jamaican management talent is John Patrick Hayden, who plays patiently manipulative Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Though not a great fan of reggae, Blackwell makes a financial success of Marley and pushes his career forward with tours in Europe and America that seal his reputation as an international music star.
Adeptly portraying the Wailers’ Peter Tosh is Michael Luwoye. His creative sidekick, Bunny Wailer, is equally well-played by Damian Thompson. And Shayne Powell distinctly portrays Malakai, a close friend. This trio of characters become the inside members of Marley’s road crew and soccer team.
Howard W. Overshown, a Center Stage veteran who appeared in the company’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” plays Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley with uncanny accuracy, while Bill Hurlbut embodies his political rival, Edward Seaga, with a restrained creepiness.
Other outstanding members of the company include Jaime Lincoln Smith, as Marley’s friend and artist Neville; Kena Anaeas as Carly Barrett; Jonathan Hooks as Family Man; Michael Rogers as the Rasta Elder; and Luke Forbes who plays Tek Life, a Jamaica Labour Party enforcer.
Among the multitude of this Baltimore-area ensemble, making their Center Stage debuts are Christopher Dews, Tracey Farrar, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Victoria Harper, Bill Hurlbut, Kyle Jackson, Jeff Kirkman III, Mawk, Allison McLean, Marili Mejias and Olu Butterfly Woods.
The “Marley” creative team is rounded out by music director Jason Webb and music supervisor Kenny Seymour, who both managed a nine-piece band discreetly positioned for maximum projection above and on the stage wings; choreographer Germaul Barnes; scenic designer Neil Patel; costume designer ESOSA; lighting designer Michelle Habeck; and sound designer Shane Rettig.
The graphic wall set design by Neil Patel and projectionist Alex Koch did a great job of helping pace the two and a half hour play, illuminating the stage when necessary with background dates and places. Illustrating the passage of times and locales, their effort proved especially effective when splashing about the English tabloid coverage of Marley’s notorious affair with Cindy Breakspeare.
Due to the impressive efforts of all involved, “Marley” concluded on a major musical high note with successful peace gesture of the political rivals shaking hands at the One Love Peace concert as “Jammin’” wafted in the background, inspiring many members of the audience join in, singing every word of Marley’s classic anthems.
So buckle up your seat belts and kick off your flip flops to get the sand out from between your toes “Marley” takes you on a three-hour journey. We recommend you come early to enjoy the tropical drinks and Trenchtown island setting that Center Stage has conjured up for your extended enjoyment. And for the true reggae enthusiast: dance seats on the mezzanine level are available for those who want to totally immerse themselves in the experience and get up and move to the music.
By the way, if you decide to attend the show – which you should – be on the lookout for a three-song, 10-minute encore where the enormous talent of this cast is keenly felt in such well known standards as “Get Up Stand Up,” “Three Little Birds” and “One Love.”
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
“Marley” runs run through June 14, 2015, to close out the Center Stage’s 2014/15 season.
Running Time: One hour first act plus 15 minute intermission, followed by a 1 hour and 15 minute second act and encore.
Parental guidance: Center stage recommends the show for ages 14 and up due to “drug use and some explicit language.”
Tickets and information: For more information on “Marley,” visit the Center Stage informational link. As of this posting, Center Stage’s online ticket pricing and purchasing link – https://tix.centerstage.org/ – appeared to be broken. We’ll try to update this information, including ticket prices, when the link goes live again.
Alternatively, for tickets and information, you can still call or visit the Center Stage Box Office. Phone: 410-332-0022; Fax: 410-727-2522. Or email at [email protected]. Phone hours: M-Sat: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sun: 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. Box Office Window Hours*: Weekdays: 9 a.m. – performance time; Sat: 10 a.m. – performance time; Sun: 12 p.m. – performance time. (* Hours to 6 p.m. only on evenings without a performance.)
Center Stage is located at 700 N Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202