The Harder They Come | 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. | Public Theater | 440 Lafayette Street | 212-967-7555
The more ironic “I Want” songs include a tablespoon of flop sweat. From the scornful leave-taking of Rose in “Some People” to the ardent fangirling of “The Wizard and I,” the number spelling out a protagonist’s impossible dream often contains the shadow of defeat. When Ivan (Natey Jones) arrives in Kingston in the opening moments of The Harder They Come, there’s nary a trace of doubt. “I can get it if I really want,” the Caribbean Candide sings, grinning at the busy street life of Jamaica’s capital. “But I must try, try and try, try and try / I’ll succeed at last.” By the end of this earnest and eager-to-please jukebox musical built around Jimmy Cliff’s catalog, Ivan’s words carry a bitter edge; the more he tries, the more he’s pushed toward crime and a violent end.
Based on the 1972 movie The Harder They Come, in which Cliff starred as Ivan, the musical tells the story of a young man from the country who finds hypocrisy and exploitation in the church, music industry, and drug trade. Too naïve to game the system and too impatient to figure out the rules, Ivan pins his dreams on making a hit record. He actually does get a bop down on vinyl, “The Harder They Come,” but music mogul Hilton forces him to sign away the rights for 20 dollars. If you’ve seen the movie co-written and directed by Perry Henzell, you know the rest: a gun, a fatal encounter with a cop, and a newly minted folk-hero on the run.
In the hands of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the screenplay becomes the book for a fast-moving and colorful, if ultimately underwhelming story of postcolonial corruption and twisted heroism. In building up secondary figures—Ivan’s churchgoing true love, Elsa (Meecah), and his marijuana-dealing friend Pedro (Jacob Ming-Trent)—Parks only highlights the flimsiness of Ivan’s characterization. In the film, Cliff’s easygoing, bad-boy charisma and the grittiness of the filmmaking fit the fashion of counterculture rebels: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But in our post–George Floyd present, the idea of a fame-seeking atheist outlaw with a death wish is a tricky sell. Absent the cynical, provocative brio of a Brecht writing Macheath, Parks tweaks Ivan into an idealistic victim of circumstance. What is gleefully nihilist in the movie (Ivan’s final stand with pistols drawn) becomes watered down into social critique (Ivan lays down his weapon, in vain).
It’s not that reggae and protest art are strangers; far from it. Many of reggae’s high priests—Cliff, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh—were political agitators as well as entertainers. But again, here, the political potential of Ivan’s outlaw status is diluted in a patchy and abbreviated second act. (The first half is fairly enjoyable, showing his progress through the church and music world.) Neither fully sinner nor saint, Ivan’s principal motion is toward greater disenchantment.
Co-directed with a thick commercial gloss by Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, the production creates an engaging ramshackle world of industrial parts by Clint Ramos and Diggle; rollicking music supervision and arrangements by Kenny Seymour; and yards of brightly patterned outfits by Emilio Sosa. The cast is equally rich with talent. Jones has a youthful swagger and freshness that serves the earlier parts of the story well. Ming-Trent is always a boisterous delight (such as his Falstaff in Merry Wives). As the bullying, lecherous Preacher, J. Bernard Calloway leads the ensemble in a roof-raising gospel number. Providing key emotional ballast, Meecah brings exquisite silk-and-smoke vocals and touching innocence to Elsa. “Hymn,” the romantic ballad Parks wrote for her, mines a pun on the title with delicate wit and passion that makes you want more—from Parks as a songwriter and from this luminous performer.
As far as jukebox musicals go, Harder is less of a vulgar cash-grab than most (looking at you, A Beautiful Noise and The Cher Show). Reggae is a refreshing idiom in a field that has recycled country, rock and hip-hop. The songs are intelligently woven into the plot, even if there’s inevitable shoehorning—such as Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” weakly split between Elsa as dutiful homemaker and a frustrated Ivan purchasing a gun. Since much of the story concerns music-making—in a gospel choir, recording studio, or a dance club—diegetic songs balance those retooled into character numbers. Harder isn’t a bad musical, just one caught between honoring its Jamaican roots and razzle-dazzling a general audience. It could be bolder, angrier, more reckless. Eight years ago in this same Public Theater space, another show about a poor, ambitious man from the Caribbean became a global hit. Ivan, sadly, throws away his shot.