Reggae lovers and mavens are flocking — I repeat, flocking! — to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an eye-popping, shoulder-dipping new musical at ImaginOn. Studded with golden favorites from the Marley songbook and adapted by Michael J. Bobbitt from a story by the reggae king’s daughter, Cedella Marley, this Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production is all about spreading joy and living life zestfully.
Or it is when Bobbitt can squeeze story elements into the crevices of the 15-number reggaethon — some of which are medleys. There’s no shortage of redemption songs. Cedella turns up as a character in this story, but the action revolves around her son Ziggy, an 11-year-old who spends his days huddled at the TV because he’s scared of hurricanes and an encounter with Duppy, a mischievous, malevolent spirit who preys on children’s hair.
Mixing sternness with genuine concern, Cedella shoos her pouting Ziggy out of the house and attempts to pair him with their next-door neighbor, Nansi, who obviously adores him. She urges him to enjoy life! On an errand to bring back water from the town, Ziggy discovers that there really isn’t a hurricane threat when the sun is shining brightly (or sticking its tongue out), that a kiss from Nansi ain’t so bad, and that he has the necessary courage and cunning to face up to his fears — Duppy in particular.
Along the way, three not-so-little birds offer friendship, guidance, and song to Ziggy — and additional solace to Cedella, since one of these creatures has been haunting Ziggy’s window sill and giving extra meaning to the phrase “dropping by.” Between the hiking, singing, and chattering, mangoes occasionally fall from a tree that overarches Tom Burch’s fantastical set, reminding us that Duppy and his conjuring powers are on the scene, eyeing Ziggy’s beautiful dreadlocks.
I’d be able to go in somewhat greater detail were it not for the dad sitting next to me, singing along to nearly all the Marley golden oldies and answering all his adorable anklebiter’s questions, whether she asked them or not. No worries, though, as formality is not the vibe at McColl Family Theater for this show. Opening up interaction between the actors and the audience, director Shondrika Moss-Bouldin has closed off both entrances to the theater at the lobby level, obliging us to enter through the mezzanine.
Avenues between the stage are now so direct and level that a toddler can easily cross over to this Jamaican fantasyland without a challenging climb. One of the ensemble members, in fact, came out and plucked a toddler from the crowd and invited her to join in on the dancing onstage. Other kids in the audience were swept into the dancing spirit, and the thrust configuration of the stage turned a few who were grooving in the front rows into instant dancing-with-the-stars celebs.
Everybody was friendly to the crowd, even Jeremy DeCarlos, our scheming and stealthy Duppy. Considering his haggard bedraggled look — think the old crone in Disney’s Snow White — and his multitudinous dreads, ingratiating himself with the tots was no small feat. The Duppy rig conjured up for DeCarlos was barely the beginning of costume designer Jason Kyle Estrada’s exploits. Lead fowl Doctor Bird’s get-up features an upturned fluorescent green jacket and a complementary hipster cap.
Oh yeah, Doctor Bird also drops knowledge. B’s erudition includes a narration of Jamaica’s colonial history, obliging all other birds on deck, DeCarlos and Ericka Ross as Cedella to slip into varied frilly and conquistador outfits. Ross’ role nearly matches Duppy’s for pluminess. We find out as much about Cedella as we do about Ziggy, for she’s supporting the family by selling her tasty Jamaican jerk chicken to tourists — and she’s wise to the charm that can disarm Duppy of his power. Delivering all that flavor and lore, Ross also speaks with the heaviest accent.
Rahsheem Shabazz absolutely slays as Doctor Bird, and his accent is competitive. While there are many studio and concert recordings of the Marley tunes on the Three Birds playlist, none that I’ve heard so far really match what I heard from Shabazz. Or DeCarlos. Or Ross. Led by music director Charlene Miranda Thomas at the keyboard, the Children’s Theatre versions are livelier and more colorful to my ears. By comparison, Bob’s tempos plod.
Take that sacrilegious assessment as my assurance that you will not be disappointed with any of the Thomas-led covers. Musically, Garrick Vaughan as Ziggy is a late arrival to the party, demonstrating that, if you’re a central character who quails at the prospect of living, Bob Marley wasn’t the man to write your songs. Vaughan’s mopey role also means that he draws the short straw among Estrada’s splendiferous costumes.
These constraints on Vaughan aren’t because he is really 11 years old. When Bobbitt finally decrees that Ziggy sings, watch out. Vaughan may have the strongest voice in the cast. A lighter, folksier touch would land him more squarely in the reggae groove. As the would-be girlfriend Nansi, Kayla Simone Ferguson is kept busy enough, teasing Ziggy and moonlighting in other guises, but so far, I’m most impressed by her rapport with the kiddies.
Janeta Jackson is an established commodity at Children’s Theatre, having starred — and flown — in last season’s stunning Mary Poppins. She doesn’t get to go full throttle or reach such heights as Tacoomah, our second bird and British colonial, but she reinforces how deep and professional this dazzling production is.
Apparently, word has spread swiftly among the Marley faithful. Keep on moving!