Director/Book writer Kwame Kwei-Armah showcases the three most productive years of Bob Marley’s career (1975-78) in a jukebox musical experience nearly as electric as the legend and his Wailers themselves. Starting with the events leading to the infamous “Smile Jamaica Concert” and the preceding attempt on Marley’s life, following his self-imposed, two-year exile to London, and concluding with the “One Love Peace Concert” of 1978, Kwei-Armah uses a variety of selections from Marley’s opus to reinforce and provide commentary on the personal and political conflicts in his life.
Songs like “Running Away” or “Exodus” illustrate Marley’s efforts to flee from Jamaican politics, whether to L or Lalibela, Ethiopia. Songs like “So Much Things to Say” and “War” take on deeper, richer meanings when set against the backdrop of the Jamaican civil war. Taken as a whole, the musical successfully represents Marley’s sometimes unwitting contributions to quelling the violence between left and right sympathizers, and showcases how his music forever encapsulates moments from this crucial time in Jamaica’s history.
At the center of the show is the reggae master and musical prophet himself, played to perfection by Mitchell Brunings. He embodies the smooth-talking, peace-loving artist, with just the right balance of incredulity, when those around him try to drag him into politics, jealousy, or any other source of conflict in opposition to his values.
Brunings’ vocals are flawless; merely hearing him front-man “Redemption Song” or “I Shot the Sheriff” is alone worth the admission price. But his work does not begin and end with a beautifully executed impersonation of Marley. It is human moments with his wife Rita (played with multi-dimensional strength, fire, and compassion by Saycon Sengbloh) or with the PM Michael Manley (played with just the right balance of a politician’s opportunism and a genuine concern for his country’s future by Howard W. Overshown) that truly showcase Brunings’ mastery of the many levels of this legendary artist. There are a variety of general types of people that traffic in and out of Marley’s life during the show, from oily record producers to spiritual gurus. The cast, without exception, manage to execute these types with enough humanity to avoid stereotyping.
Some particularly notable performances include John Patrick Hayden, who brings a sincerity and passion to the part of Island Records producer, Chris Blackwell. Michael Rogers gives the Rasta Elder a tragic cynicism vying with his mystery and authority, and Michaela Waters, who makes Marley’s London mistress (Miss World Cindy Breakspeare) a passionate confidant and love interest for the embittered, exiled Marley.
There are some structural considerations that occurred at my performance on Wednesday, May 13th, which started 20 minutes late. Kwei-Armah clearly intends the audience to participate directly in Marley’s repertoire, but there was too much of an energy break between the pre-show and the arrival of the ensemble among the audience. They tried to rebuild the energy by dancing near the spectators, but it fell flat with only a few awkward attempts at seated swaying, until the scripted “encore” sequence when all are called upon to dance and sing along. There was a single flashback to the signing with Island Records in 1972 and some of the subsequent tours. Even though it featured some interesting exchanges between Marley’s group and Blackwell, and was meant to underline a contemporary schism in the Wailers, it felt out of place in a musical that otherwise moves chronologically through the three-year period in focus.
Neil Patel’s scenic design fits perfectly with the concert style of the production. In a layout reminiscent of an ancient amphitheatre (complete with voms and dancing space), backed by a wall of speakers and three overlapping flats spanning the height of the stage, each scene, whether a reenactment of the 1975 benefit concert in which Stevie Wonder jams with Marley, or a domestic memory from Marley’s house on Hope Road (located across the street from Manley’s home), combines splashy projections (lyrics to a song or an artist’s conception of a Jamaican house) and simple scenic properties (a sofa or a desk), with actors in 1970s Jamaican, Ethiopian, or English dress as the main components of stage pictures that are at times realistic (a football game where Marley’s cancerous foot flares up) and other times stylized (moments of gang violence or Marley literally folding up a chair to “turn his back” on Jamaica). Esosa (costume), and Michelle Habeck (lighting) demonstrate in Marley the goals of design collaboration in the art of the theatre. Even Shane Rettig’s sound design, which could be a liability in a show so dependent on the mosaic of music and gunshots, supports the event without error.
Centerstage’s Marley is utterly enjoyable and the performances so dynamic and deeply felt. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.