Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Harder They Come (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The 1972 Perry Henzell Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff was an international hit and spawned an influential soundtrack album that put reggae on the map. But still, the story of singer Ivan, who comes to Kingston from the country with dreams of becoming a singer and, frustrated at every turn by the establishment, turns to crime, might seem an unlikely subject for a musical. 

The remarkable Suzan-Lori Parks has made it work, melding the Cliff songs with new ones of her own for a seamless whole. The plot and much of the dialogue mirrors the film but there are significant revisions. As a program note informs us, Parks “creates a new set of complex, vital relationships  between Ivan and everyone around him…What is the personal cost of fighting against systemic injustice? When is violence justified? And ultimately, how can we rediscover our collective sense of joy?”

That may sound a bit high-handed, but the revamp worked for me, and despite a tragic fate of its antihero, the overall tone is surprisingly joyous and upbeat. (Actually, in its juxtaposition of cheerful music and ultra-serious plot, I was reminded of Paul Simon’s short-lived “The Capeman.”)  Music supervisor Kenny Seymour’s orchestrations and arrangements beguile the ear throughout. The movie songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” which were used as underscoring in the film, become character songs for Ivan and the others.

The production is superbly cast, headed as it is by Natey Jones as anti-hero Ivan who gives an outstanding performance both dramatically and vocally. (Jones has an impressive resume of West End credits, as well as the National Theatre and RSC.) You get a real visceral sense of his character’s frustration and growing impatience with the continuing roadblocks in his way to getting his song played. Ivan becomes more of a hothead and increasingly difficult to love as the show goes on, but Jones offers a vivid warts and all portrayal.

Meecah is lovely as the sweet girl he meets and falls in love with when he at first seeks refuge with a church group run by Preacher, the girl’s questionable guardian, and there’s good work by Jeannette Bayardelle as Ivan’s mother. Also outstanding are versatile Jacob Ming-Trent as Pedro who befriends Ivan and, when the chips are down, convinces Ivan to be part of drug lord Jose’s (Dominique Johnson) gang, and Ken Robinson as Hilton, who rules the Kingston music scene with an iron hand, exploiting Ivan and presumably everyone else. 

Beautifully staged by Tony Taccone (with co-direction by Sergio Trujillo) with choreography by Edgar Godineaux, the show holds your interest from start to finish. Clint Ramos & Diggle’s scenic design, atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman, and dressed by costume designer Emilio Sosa, conjure up the Kingston milieu skillfully. And Walter Trarbach’s sound design is nicely balanced, and not the assault on the senses of so many musicals these days.

Perhaps in 2023, the movie’s title doesn’t have the cachet it might have once had, limiting its commercial appeal. But in every other respect,  I’d say the show is Broadway worthy. 

As it is, the Public’s run ends this week, but if you can find time during these busy days of Passover and Easter, “The Harder They Come” is very much worth your time..

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; ;through April 9)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Natey Jones (center) and the company

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