Review: Marley at Centerstage

TheatreBloom rating:

Life is only important if you can help plenty of people. And Centerstage is helping plenty of people by jammin’ and jammin’ and jammin’ and jammin’ to the groovy heartfelt love that can only be Bob Marley. With Music and Lyrics by the Reggae legend himself and a Book written by Centerstage’s Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, this intricate examination of Marley’s life and his work to help the masses is a moving experience that shakes the soul with the chords of justice, melodies of peace, and powers of love. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah with Musical Direction and Supervision by Jason Michael Webb and Kenny Seymour, this exciting world premier new musical will definitely help you feel alright, even given the current state of the world.


 For a fully immersive theatrical experience, Centerstage has pulled out all the stops and brought Jamaica to Baltimore. With a sand-filled lobby and island-vibes of fresh spun jams pre-show, the atmosphere is jammin’ in an attempt to prepare theatergoers for the fun-filled, yet politically charged, evening that awaits them. Scenic Designer Neil Patel makes the set upon the stage an extenuation of the lobby pre-show experience. Patel fabricates an enormous turntable, decorated to appear as a Bob Marley & The Wailers record on the floor and dresses the back of the stage with stacks of speakers. Placing the live orchestra atop the stacks furthers the authenticity of the ‘concert’ experience that is created herein.

Projection Designer Alex Koch furthers the experience with his flood of images that are featured along the back-stack of screen laid over the speakers. Koch’s enhancements create the spectacle that the modern theatergoing audience has come to expect from musicals, the infusion of digital imagery and technology into live performance not going amiss in this case. Finishing out the design trifecta, Lighting Designer Michelle Habeck. Filling the appropriate musical numbers with the signature colors of Rasta in her design work, Habeck guides the concert atmosphere along the finely toed path of being a live musical show and being a staged musical, giving punch in exactly the right moments when songs are happenings, and subtly in spoken word scenes.


Playwright and Director Kwame Kwei-Armah has found a beautiful medium for telling the tale of Bob Marley’s music in a fashion that goes beyond the music itself. Deeply exploring just how politically trapped Marley was in his brief life, and how desperately he just wanted to love and be loved by the people for all the reasons that grounded his core beliefs in Rastafarianism, Kwei-Armah delivers a stellar book that is perfectly set both the popular and obscure tones that set the artist’s career ablaze. The juxtaposition of music to politics, art to life, and love to hate in Kwei-Armah’s work is striking and evocative. Making good on Marley’s idea, “music is an instrument of war, not just to pretty up the ears of the people,” Kwei-Armah creates exceptional text and fits it to Marley’s songs accordingly, telling this volatile political tale wrapped in all of Marley’s beliefs in peace and love.


The vocal talents contained within the production are nothing short of sensational. From their ability to imitate while simultaneously crafting their own unique sound, across the board the voices that populate this production earn the love of the people with their music. Mykal Kilgore takes a moment at the top of the show to appear as the incredibly talented Stevie Wonder, singing along with Marley for “I Shot the Sheriff” and his sound is the epitome of this hybrid of flattering artist imitation and original vocalization. It is moments like this, where the actors live fully in their carefully constructed characters that model real life, where their talent shines through as they adapt these popular iconic personas to be what people recognize them for while making them their own individual person with depth, meaning, and lively existence.

Packing a powerhouse message behind their backup vocals both Michael Luwoye and Damian Thompson portray the infamous ‘Wailers’ of Bob Marley & The Wailers. Their sounds are sublime and flow to the rhythmic groove of the show’s overall mellow nature. Despite the political ties and connotations that are populated throughout the performance, Both Luwoye and Thompson bring a solidarity of good vibrations to the lyrics they intone. Along with the duo that comprises The Wailers, Susan Kelechi Watson, Crystal Joy, and Saycon Sengbloh blend the sounds of the “I-Three” singers for songs like “Them Belly Full” and “Redemption Song.” Sengbloh also earns the honor of playing Rita, Marley’s wife, and does so with a firm and unyielding love, particularly when it comes to her family and her children.


The focus of a show called Marley is expected to be the man playing Bob Marley. Mitchel Brunings brings the hazy vocal ease of Bob Marley to resplendent life in his portrayal of the Rastafarian, but unearths a rich humanity and flawed complexity in the man. Delving into the character’s psyche, as articulated in the text by Kwei-Armah, Brunings finds a happy medium between Reggae icon and realistic human being. His accentuation of the character’s flaws, both emotionally and spiritually, really draws the focus to the man not the legend and how his raw and expressive humanity informed his music. Brunings has a deceptively charming voice that lends itself to the style of the Reggae music that Marley popularized in the United States and well recognized numbers like “War” and “Jammin’” have an authentic Marley sound to it. The uncanny resemblance in the way Brunings carries his voice through these and more obscure numbers known only to true Reggae/Rasta fans— like “Concrete Jungle” and “Work”— makes him the perfect fit for the role.

A truly involved experience that will carry you away to another time and place and unearth the human story behind the legendary man that is Bob Marley and his all-too-short life is here for a limited engagement, do not wait to get your tickets!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

Marley plays through June 14, 2015 at Centerstage— 700 N. Calvert Street in the Mount Vernon District of the City of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 332-0033 or purchase them online.


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