Before arriving at Center Stage for the May 31 matinee performance of “Marley,” I was a little worried that my expectations of the show may be too high. After all, for nearly a month, I’d heard scads of folks singing very high praises and lauding everything about the production. Then, Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and his cast captured the heart of Baltimore, by taking to the streets and staging a concert at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues, to help the city heal during difficult times.Sometimes, those kind of accolades can be hard to live up to, and that can be a hard act to follow, literally.
When your theater-going experience begins with sand between your toes in the lobby, that alone let’s you know it’s going to be some kind of special. Fill the space with reggae tunes pulsating from a wall of speakers and dancing, taking you “dung a yard” to Trench Town, throw in some Jamaican Rum Punch, and it’s on. Start the musical with a heart-pumping performance by Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder jammin’ on stage and folks dancing in the aisles, encouraging you to join them, and you know that everything is going to be alright.
The story focuses on Robert Nesta Marley’s life during his two-year term of self-imposed exile from Jamaica, after the unsuccessful attempt on his life in 1976, and intertwines dynamic musical performances with solid acting for its telling. Mitchell Brunings’ heartfelt rendering of the complexities of Marley as a musician, man of faith (“Jah Rastafari”), husband, family man, man of the people, lover and all else makes it difficult to believe that this is his first acting gig.
If you’ve ever seen the YouTube video of his blind audition performance singing “Redemption Song” for The Voice of Holland 2013, then you know that Brunings channels Marley through song in a way that really grabs your attention. In a Center Stage press release, Kwei-Armah says of Brunings. “His soulful, gorgeous voice and deep respect for Bob’s music and life make him the perfect fit for this production.”
He is absolutely correct, and Kwei-Armah’s eye for talent was spot on when he contacted the singer after viewing that video and arranged an immediate trip to Holland to meet with him. Actually, it’s difficult to identify anything about this production that isn’t spot on, other than the fact that it closes June 14.
As the revolving stage, modeled after an LP (record album), transports members of the cast and audience from concert stages to Marley’s home across the road from Prime Minister Manley’s residence, Chris Blackwell’s office at Island Records in London and Lalibela, in the mountains of Ethiopia and beyond, sliding backdrops with scenery projected onto them, much of it animated, complete the scenes, brilliantly. On stage, Marley’s music carries us through the musical’s scenes, literally and figuratively.
Reggae music is meant to be felt, spiritually and physically, and each song performed during “Marley” had the audience singing and swaying, or up on its feet. From the soul stirring vocal arrangement nuances, backed by an outstanding band of musicians who rocked the house, to choreography that punctuated the force of the music’s delivery and used the entire theater as its stage, all of those involved have undoubtedly made the Marley family and Tuff Gong Pictures L.P. proud to have given their approval.
The authenticity of the Patois (dialect) spoken during the performance is striking but not surprising. According to Production Dramaturg Gavin Witt, many of the members of the cast have a familial connection to Jamaica or Caribbean culture, which was highly desirable during auditions. And, the production made extensive use of voice and acting coaches. Jaime Lincoln Smith (the actor portraying Neville Garrick, Bob Marley’s art director) had the distinct honor of spending time with the real Garrick, who visited while the show was in production.
There’s a lot of good to be said about “Marley”. Its storyline, casting, production… even the timing of its run. Who knew? At a time that Baltimore needed healing, the cast of a musical about a man who wanted to give a free concert for the people to heal his nation gave a free concert to help heal a city. The message is in the music.
And, the show ended with “One Love.”