Marley: A Rare and Topical Event

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Marley: A Rare and Topical Event

Mitchell Brunings

Mitchell Brunings

Posted on BroadwayWorld May 18, 2015

Get your tickets quickly for Marley, because it will likely sell out. It is the first time Center Stage has produced a true Big Musical. In recent years Center Stage has produced its share of regional theater-scale productions of established hit musicals, including Pajama Game, A Little Night Music, and, earlier this season, Next to Normal. But the ambition of this show, the size of the cast (probably the largest I’ve ever seen at Center Stage), and the fact that this is a world premiere, combine to make this an event a first for this venue. Marley shows every sign of being intended for Broadway, and every sign of being able to hold its own once it arrives there.

This is something we haven’t seen in a very long time in this town: a full-scale hit musical in the making. We probably would never have had a chance at it or anything like it were the author, Kwame Kwei-Armah, not also Center Stage’s Artistic Director, who has been reported as determined to give it first to his own company.

In form, it is a standard jukebox musical of the biopic variety, built around the life and the oeuvre of a great popular musical act, in this case reggae superstar Bob Marley. With a certain amount of fictionalizing and combining of historical characters, a generous use of flashbacks, and a dramatic arc that ends with a big concert, it has most of the hallmarks of the genre. And the foundation, as always in these shows, is a recreation of the experience of hearing the performer. Just as John Lloyd Young, for all intents and purposes, was Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, so first-time actor Mitchell Brunings is Bob Marley. The physical resemblance is tolerable, the dreadlock-tossing mannerisms, the Jamaican patois, and most of all, the weary, slightly hoarse tenor, are all there.

In short, this is the kind of show we Baltimoreans ordinarily see at the 2300-seat Hippodrome in retreaded road-show format after Broadway has leeched much of the spontaneous excitement. It is a completely different matter to see such a production in the intimate setting of the 541-seat Pearlstone Theater. And it is no small satisfaction to witness the Pearlstone’s audience using that space the way it is encouraged to do here: singing along, standing up and dancing along with the show. At the finale, the audience is invited to come up to the stage and dance with the cast – fourth wall be damned. After years of occasionally stodgy, if always tasteful, productions at Center Stage, Kwei-Armah in four seasons has simply swept aside the old paradigms of what could be done and what should be done in that house.

We all know Center Stage is about to hit an inflection-point in its development, a year exiled at Towson University, as the company’s permanent home is refurbished. Doubtless things will be different next year, and different again when the troupe returns to its permanent quarters. So this show is a kind of climax to a short era: Kwei-Armah’s first four years. Marley sends it out with a resounding celebratory bang.

The bang isn’t simply a matter of scale, ambition, and audience participation. Within the strictures of the jukebox musical, this is a well-made and well-staged play. It covers three years towards the end of Marley’s life, when the violence generated by the unholy alliances between Jamaica’s political parties and criminal gangs temporarily drowned out Marley’s political but nonpartisan message. Marley therefore made his home in London for two years as a sort of refugee and recluse. When he returned, he spearheaded a concert at which he persuaded the two leading feuding politicians to appear on the stage together with him, and even hold hands, as a message of national – and human unity. The tale forms a natural dramatic arc; as I’ve said already, it is conventional (because it works), for biopic-style jukebox musicals to end with a concert at which the star’s personal issues are also to some degree resolved. And this is what Kwei-Armah presents.

This complicated story, told in accents and with a vocabulary not necessarily familiar to American audiences, demands some curating and interpretation beyond what a dramaturg can supply in program notes. And here the brilliant set, by Neil Patel, carries the heaviest burden. The turntable in the center becomes an Island record (Marley’s label at this point in his career), complete with the actual label design Island records featured in the mid-70s. And surrounding that sometimes revolving disk is a series of moving screens on which projections, variously pictorial, graffitoed, lyrical, or whatever help the audience grasp the context, are shown. (A hat-tip to projection-designer Alex Koch.) The screens also slide around to facilitate entrances and exits.

And of course, by an accident of timing for which no one can claim credit (although many should acknowledge blame), Marley speaks not so indirectly to Baltimore’s own current situation. You could make an argument that the lyrics of Marley’s song War, presented in the show, exactly summarize the root problem in our town right now:

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Inferior
Is finally
And permanently
Discredited
And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say war.

That until there no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war.

That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race
Dis a war

Even though the historical Marley was probably mainly thinking about apartheid when he sang these words, you could not possibly sing them on a Baltimore stage these days without making the audience think of events closer to home. That common distress, and a common sense of determination, were palpable in the crowd the night I watched the show. Bob Marley, very self-consciously a prophet, sang for his moment, but he sang as well for the ages, which includes our own. Center Stage could not have bought Bob Marley’s topicality, but it could earn it, and did. One could believe it really was Marley up there, singing right to us.

Of course, in the manner of modern biopic jukebox musicals, that sense of presence, that verisimilitude, were reinforced by at least the show of airing the hero’s failings. So we get reasonable glimpses of Marley’s indecision and his incessant womanizing, and his (to most listeners, anyway) wooly Rastafari mysticism. An example of how not to do it: in Berry Gordy’s autobiographical script for Motown, Gordy whitewashed the way his own overreaching business practices alienated his stable of artists; as a result, if you knew anything about the story, the big reconciliatory concert scene at the end felt utterly phony. Marley‘s big reconciliatory concert feels true.

So I think this work will have legs beyond Baltimore. With a well-crafted book and a rousing songbook delivered by a singer who can make us believe Marley is in our midst, it should go far. And for something like that to get its start in Baltimore, when the era of tryout houses is almost defunct, is almost unheard-of. It should absolutely not be missed. If you can score tickets.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for excerpted lyrics and production photo

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