The Bob Marley of “Marley,” the new bio-musical forged from the life and artistry of the Jamaican reggae legend, is a tough guy to get a handle on. Stoic, unforthcoming, introspective, he isn’t minted from any of the molds in which star characters of musical theater are traditionally made.
Mitchell Brunings portrays Bob Marley in “Marley” at Baltimore’s Center Stage. (Richard Anderson)
His songs, on the other hand, earthy and hypnotic, rope you in with their sweet beats and hearty openness. As threaded together by the show’s book writer and director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, they reveal the passion of the man in ways that are otherwise not satisfyingly apparent in this world premiere, at Baltimore’s flagship theater, Center Stage. So what audiences encounter in “Marley’s” maiden run is a lumbering vehicle, equipped with some tantalizing melodic windows.
Featuring the keen singing talents of Mitchell Brunings as the title character, “Marley” will certainly be considered a dream machine by fans of the globally influential songwriter. But one’s curiosity about the private man is not nearly as satisfactorily addressed as is the desire to hear his music. The deficit may boil down chiefly to a portrait of Marley that feels excessively internalized — or to an actor more vocally than dramatically expressive. In any event, “Marley” comes across at this point as a mission that’s not entirely fulfilled.
Thirty or so of Marley’s melodies, performed by a nine-member band and a cast of 32, provide a broad survey of the artist’s songbook. “Revolution,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Redemption Song” and, of course, “One Love” are among the numbers given authoritative treatment here. The visual elements, supplied by the set and projection designers, Neil Patel and Alex Koch, transport us with digital panache to the Kingston, Jamaica, and London of the 1970s where much of “Marley” takes place.
The windy story, though, lacks the dynamism to fully engage us between the songs. Marley, who died in 1981 at age 36, is portrayed as a pivotal figure not only in Jamaica’s music industry, but also in its political culture: The country’s prime minister, Michael Manley (Howard W. Overshown), shamelessly tries to enlist him as an ally in his fight against his chief rival, Edward Seaga (Bill Hurlbut). This culminates in Manley’s effort to co-opt a free open-air concert Marley seeks to perform for the Jamaican people, one he wishes to conduct without political taint. Caught up in turbulent events beyond his control, however, Marley and his retinue — including his wife, Rita (Saycon Sengbloh) — become targets for assassination, and he flees the country.
Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s artistic director, comes up with useful thematic context for some numbers, such as “Them Belly Full,” which helps to illuminate Marley’s concerns about average people and social injustice. Still, the production’s focus tends to drift. The multiple narrative strands concern everything from a flashback to Marley’s signing of a recording deal with a British producer (John Patrick Hayden) to his extramarital affairs and his increasingly strained relationship with Rita. Other interludes unfold around the abstractions Marley grappled with during his self-imposed exile in Europe and Africa, regarding his spiritual questing as well as his uncertainty about what role he should play in Jamaican society. It adds up to a lot of loose threads without much cumulative power. And it’s all tied up anticlimactically, in a final unity concert back on his home island.
“Marley” calls to mind another biographical musical, “Fela!”, built around the career of a Marley contemporary — the Nigerian singer-activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who also had an uncanny magnetic pull on his people (but never achieved the magnitude of international fame enjoyed by Marley). “Fela!” was conceived as a concert interspersed with bits of Fela’s personal history, and it had a healthy run on Broadway, benefiting from the gleefully infectious energy of its main character and of Sahr Ngaujah, who played him. Crucially, by evening’s end, the audience had gained some understanding of what made Fela tick.
That sense of being clued into what drives a messianic entertainer is nowhere to be felt in “Marley.” You’re left with the powerful memory of inspirational songs but too paltry an impression of the unique force of nature who dreamed them all into being.