marley program and stage

Sand underfoot. Colors of red, green and yellow hang overhead. The spicy scent of curry tickling your nose. Ahh, Jamaica, Mon. Nope, Baltimore, Hon!

Immersive. That’s the first word that comes to mind to describe Center Stage’s world premiere of Marley. Superbly directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and blessed by the singer’s family, the musical chronicles approximately three years of Bob Marley’s life. This is a pivotal time when Marley evolves into the civil rights symbol adored by millions.

Center Stage’s lobby transports you to Jamaica, complete with clay floor, reggae dance party and an island kitchen with a working stove. The cast is in character before the curtain rises.

Even the announcer thanked sponsors in a Jamaican accent.

cast member and tiye

A cast member and me before the show

The Voice of Holland contestant and first-time actor, Mitchell Brunings portrays Bob Marley. Here is the viral performance that fortuitously helped Brunings earn the lead role:

The story begins with Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder pairing up for I Shot the Sheriff at the 1975 Wonder Dream show in Kingston. Later, Marley meets with Prime Minister Michael Manley to propose a concert to help quell Jamaica’s escalating violence. Marley’s two conditions—the event is free for the people, and free of political influence. Manley pounces on the opportunity to align himself with the singer, changing the country’s elections to an earlier date to coincide with the gratis show.

Marley snaps at friends during the rehearsal of Get Up, Stand Up. Background vocalist Maria discloses her life has been threatened because of the upcoming gig.

Shots ring out, the band is hit and Marley flees to London.

Bob Marley becomes a hermit in his self-imposed exile. He emerges, gets his groove back with the ladies (read: fathers several children) and inks a new record deal. He experiences an artistic and spiritual awakening. There is a poignant phone call between Marley and wife Rita, played by Saycon Sengbloh. She yearns for him to come home. He’s resolute in staying in London. You feel their worlds collide during an emotional duet of Waiting in Vain.

rita and bob marley

There is so much more goodness I’m not going to reveal, because I want you to go see the musical. Dozens of Bob Marley songs are strategically interspersed throughout the production. The ridiculously talented cast and ensemble use every square inch of the auditorium to envelop the senses—from lighting up on stage, to protesting in the mezzanine, to grabbing audience members as dance partners.

It was a big love fest during the “Meet the Actors” segment after the play. The majority of the cast returned to the stage for an informal discussion with fans. They all connected with Jamaica’s struggles and juxtaposed them with Baltimore’s Riots that took place during the play’s rehearsals. The actors were so moved they gave a performance at the center of the city conflict, on Pennsylvania and North avenues.

Throughout the play, I was absorbed in the lives unfolding before me. I thought about how you didn’t see Will Smith in Ali. You completely forgot about Jamie Foxx in Ray. Those entertainers personified the larger-than-life men. In that same vein, Brunings embodies Marley.

Marley plays at Center Stage through June 14 (I’m crossing my fingers and toes the production is extended).

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