New Bob Marley musical gets high-wattage premiere, but script loses out to songs

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
More than two dozen Bob Marley songs are packed into new musical about his life during the tumultuous '70s.

Center Stage has gone all out to conjure up the spirit of global reggae star Bob Marley. The effort starts well before audience members reach their seats for performances of "Marley," the stirring, not entirely satisfying new musical about the Jamaican singer by company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

The mood-setting begins with the lobby area, transformed into a humble slice of Jamaica. The entire floor is now covered with soil -- real, honest-to-goodness, kick-around dirt. A quaint wood hut occupies a corner of the space. Graffiti and political posters for warring Jamaican parties adorn the walls.

It's all meant to thrust everyone into the thick of Marley's tumultuous years during the 1970s, when his blossoming advocacy for peace and reconciliation in his country ran up against the brutal realities of lawless streets and nearly cost him his life.

Kwei-Armah's choice of those years as a focal point neatly underlines the events and forces that helped define the singer and his convictions (religious, influenced by his embrace of the Rastafari faith, and social). This is also the period when Marley experienced doubts that would lead him into exile in London after surviving an attack by gunmen at his Jamaican home in 1976.

That exile found Marley creating some of his most celebrated albums, and several songs from those records feature prominently in the score. There is room for selections from other albums as well. So much room -- there are nearly 30 songs, performed whole or partially -- that the show often suggests a conventional jukebox musical trying to break free from the clutches of a pesky script.

Don't get me wrong -- Marley's songs remain as infectious as ever, and they are delivered with terrific energy and style all the way through. But there is that old expression about too much of a good thing. 

The script seems to be struggling just as hard to keep its head above all the music. Just when it seems there will be some substantial fleshing out of the narrative, infectious reggae rhythms start chugging along again and it's off to another great tune. There's never quite enough time to burrow deeply into the characters and incidents.

Although Marley, effectively acted and terrifically sung by theater newcomer Mitchell Brunings, is onstage most of the time, his personality, philosophy and failings could still be more finely delineated. The character of his wife, Rita, portrayed with winning warmth and nuance by Saycon Sengbloh, likewise calls out for development.

For that matter, there could be greater detail and context for the incendiary situation in Jamaica, which accounts for several unsettling scenes of violence in the show.

Actors play prime minister Michael Manley of the People's National Party and Edward Seaga, leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (and former record producer), but the root causes and the ramifications of their fierce antipathy aren't fully explored.

It's as if Kwei-Armah didn't want to over-burden anyone with all that old history and politics -- or "politricks," the perfectly coined term in Rasta-speak. 

The superficial approach lessens the impact of the Act 1-closing reference to Marley's "Smile Jamaica" event (he performed there only two days after being wounded), as well as the Act 2-closing evocation of the "One Love Peace Concert." These scenes don't register all that differently from the rest of the musical's big numbers.

That said, there is strong stuff here. Surefire entertainment, too, right down to the inevitable mini-concert tacked on as a coda, a la "Mamma Mia" and the like, to get audience members singing and dancing. (The opening night crowd, which included one of Marley's daughters, Cedella, and a son, Rohan, got easily into the spirit.)

The premiere enjoys a mostly well-paced staging, directed by Kwei-Armah, and boasts a tight, spirited band (perched above the stage) to propel all the songs.

Neil Patel's scenic design includes a giant record turntable as the main element, with lots of imaginative, occasionally witty projections (by Alex Koch) to provide additional atmosphere. Esosa's spot-on costumes add much to the visual flair.

Brunings, who maintains command of the stage with his vibrant vocalism, is bound to get more comfortable in the title role (and with his dreadlock wig) as the run continues.

In addition to the radiant  Sengbloh, who delivers a musical highlight with Brunings in a fusion of "No Woman No Cry" and "Waiting in Vain," high-wattage performers fill the tightly meshed cast. Stand-outs include Don Guillory as Marley's manager, Don Taylor. (The Jamaican patois used by most of the cast can get a little too thick but certainly has an authentic ring.)

It will be interesting to see how the public embraces "Marley" in a big way, and if it has the legs to reach bigger cities. A more effective balance between play and music might boost its chances; a bit of tightening and fine-tuning might help, too (a cliched line about a man having "to follow his heart" wouldn't be missed, for a start).

But as it stands, "Marley" celebrates the legacy of an uncommon artist and his uncommon music with an effective sweep. This is a particularly good time to be reminded of both. Marley's admonition to stand up and be counted in the fight for right could hardly be more relevant, in so many places. And no one delivered compelling social messages to a catchier beat.

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