BWW Reviews: MARLEY at Center Stage - From Mozart to MARLEY...What a Season!!
In what could very well be the most anticipated world premiere musical of the year has been raising the roof at Baltimore's Center Stage. Credit Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah for envisioning a musical that deals with the great musician Bob Marley and a slice of his life in Jamaica. It's a long story how Kwei-Armah got involved with MARLEY but suffice it to say that Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (Blue Mountain Music) and Neville Garrick (who designed some of the record covers) as well as the Marley estate gave Kwei-Armah the "green light" to tell Marley's story.
But Kwei-Armah decided to write the story focusing on a short period of Marley's life, the
"Smile Jamaica" concert two days after an attempt at his life in 1976 and the "One Love" peace concert in 1978 which followed his voluntary exile to London where he wrote many of his big hits. But not only did Kwei-Armah write this ambitious, informative, educational, and moving work, he has directed as well and his work is a gem.
I couldn't help but notice that Center Stage started the 2014-15 season with AMADEUS which focused on the life of Mozart who died at the young age of 35 (on Dec. 5, 1791, the same date as Marley's 1976 concert) and ends with MARLEY about the reggae master, Bob Marley, who died at the young age of 36 due to Cancer. Coincidence?
There is so much to write about this production.
Let me begin by describing what awaits you as you enter the lobby of Center Stage. First, women patrons, don't wear fancy high heels and men, may I suggest sandals. Why? the lobby has been transformed into a beach, yes, the floor has been replaced with sand to give you the Jamaican feel. But that's not all. There's a disc jockey spinning some reggae music. There's a Jamaican flag with "Welcome to Trenchtown, the Home of Reggae Muzic. Members of the cast will be asking you to dance. Other cast members are playing dominos on wooden tables painted with the Jamaican flag. There's even a kitchen where food is being prepared. There is graffiti everywhere about the two politicians vying for power. There is graffiti for the candidates for Prime Minister, Edward Seaga and PNP Party candidate, Michael Manley. There's a souvenir shop with a sign above it advertising "Wail'n Souls Records". There are three Marley CD's for sale costing $15 each including "Legend" (which I recommend), "Exodus", and "Kaya". Also for sale are MARLEY beach bags with the show's logo ($25), a Marley Rasta Stripe Tank ($25), Marley face T-shirt ($20), a Marley Legend 70th birthday T-Shirt ($20), for women, a "One Love" T-Shirt ($20), and a Marley Junior Lion Tank ($20), coffee mugs ($10), posters ($15). The country of Jamaica has a table with lots of tourism literature which includes a nice story about James Bond author Ian Fleming and his love for Jamaica and an ad for the Bob Marley Museum (visit www.bobmarleymuseum.com). The snack bar features a wonderful Rum Punch for $6 (I loved it).
There are also many television monitors which features the cast and Kwei-Armah while the struggles in Baltimore were continuing, walking to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue (the location where the protests began) and giving a mini-concert. It's all very moving.
There's a lot at stake here. Both Garrick and Blackwell are involved in this production. Blackwell is a producer and Garrick works for the Marley family (two of Marley's daughters even attended opening night).
It's not often that the Washington Post Sunday "Arts and Style" section has a front page story about Center Stage and huge photo of Mitchell Brunings (Marley). Yes, there's a lot of buzz about this show. According to Garrick, "I expect this to be successful, and I expect it to go for Broadway." And I agree. See Nelson Pressley's Post article of May 10, 2015.
There is so much to love about this show. There is a fascinating story of how Kwei-Armah found his "Marley". Would you believe YouTube? Mitchell Brunings, once a boxer and a psychiatric nurse, dazzled audiences world-wide with his rendition of "Redemption Song". But could he act? Thanks to acting coach, Samantha Godfrey, the answer is a resounding YES. Brunings (from Holland) has a great future ahead of him. He nails the part of Marley with his superb voice and mannerisms which are spot on.
There is so much great music. Hits such as "I Shot the Sheriff" (with Stevie Wonder played by Mykal Kolgore), "Revolution", "Running Away", and "Redemption Song". Do not leave the performance early because there is a wonderful three song "encore" at the end where audience members are invited to join the cast on stage and sing "Three Little Birds", "Get Up", and "Stand Up; One Love".
MARLEY boasts a huge cast of 31 talented and energetic performers. There is also an amazing orchestra which you can watch high above the stage. Stage left you will observe Music Director/ Conductor, and1st Keyboard Jason Michael Webb (also credited with Additional Arrangements and Orchestrations), Bob Boguslaw, 2nd Keyboard, Ike Daniel, 1st Guitar, Dave Leoni, 2nd Guitar, Chelton Grey, Bass, and Eric Brown, Drums. Stage right are Tom Williams, Trumpet, Ed Walter, Tenor Saxophone/Flute, and Chris Steele on Trombone. Credit to Kenny Seymour for the Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements. The Orchestrations by both Seymour and Webb and simply fabulous.
To be successful, there must be a sound system that will make you feel the music in your bones and Shane Rettig has mastered that task. Alex Koch is just plain brilliant with his clever Projections. Germaul Barnes is be saluted for the great choreography. Neil Patel has designed an amazing set which features a turntable in the middle that rotates with the Island Records logo in the middle. ESOSA is responsible for the appropriate costumes and Michelle Habeck for the terrific Lighting.
Everyone on stage deserves your attention. But standouts include John Patrick Hayen (Chris Blackwell), Howard W. Overshown (Michael Manley), Don Guillory as Marley's managers, Don Taylor, and Saycon Sengbloh (Rita Marley).
Kwei-Armah does not white wash the leading character. He includes the fact that he was a womanizer and the parade of babies is a reflection of the many children Marley fathered.
MARLEY is not be missed. I plan on returning for a second visit. After you see the show, you will understand. It runs until June 14 (I wish it could be extended). For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org. For those who desire to dance during the show, there are a few seats available in the balcony which allow you to do this. There is also a free after party following the June 6 performance. Remember to enjoy the pre-show thirty minutes before curtain.
THIS JUST IN
You can celebrate BOB MARLEY DAY on June 6 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore. They will be celebrating the spirit and legacy of Bob Marley with appearances from MARLEY cast members and Kwei-Armah. The celebration will include a live reggae band and films about Marley. From noon to 5 p.m. It's free with museum admission ($6-$8). Visit www.lewismuseum.org.
It was just announced that MARLEY became the highest grossing single ticket show and the highest attended show in the 52 year history of Center Stage. It earned nearly 50% more than the previous highest grossing single ticket show, the 2011 production of THE WIZ.
According to Artistic Director, writer, and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, "I'm thrilled that almost every single performance sold out, but reading letters from patrons telling me that MARLEY was a healing experience for them is what makes me proudest of this production."
This and That
The Baltimore Symphony is announcing that guest artist Mandy Patinkin is once again cancelling his appearance due to a conflict next season. The good news is that two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster will be taking his place performing with the BSO from Feb. 18, 2016 to Feb. 21, 2016.
The Off-Broadway hit BLUE MAN GROUP is to be featured on the Premier season of NBC's "I Can Do That" June 2 and June 9 at 10 p.m. They will perform a never-before-seen set on the Tuesday, June 2 episode and on June 9 you can view their training and skills necessary for a performance.
On June 6 on WETA, there is "Broadway to Hollywood with Richard Glazier"... a look at Broadway and Hollywood through music. It airs at 2:30 p.m.
Remember the Tony Awards Sunday night June 7 on CBS at 8 p.m. Also at the same time on WETA, Great Performances: Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. Have you ever wondered why has the Broadway musical proven to be such fertile territory for Jewish artists of all kinds? Who scheduled this opposite the Tony Awards? Thankfully the show repeats on Monday June 8 at 1 p.m., Wed. June 10 at 4 and 9:30 p.m.
And finally, here's something different. The McLean Theatre Company , made up of high school students, is presenting the musical BIG FISH again thankfully. It has been invited to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, NE June 26. The award-winning group brings four encore performances to area stages. On June 13 and 14, check it out at McLean's Burks Auditorium. Two performances of the even bigger rendition of BIG FISH, prepared especially for the Thespian Festival, takes place June 20 at George Mason University's Harris Theater. For tickets, visit www.mcleandrama.com.