By: Paulanne Simmons
March 16, 2023: The Harder They Come, a musical based on the 1972 Jamaican crime film directed by Perry Henzell and starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, has all the elements of a hit: a lovable rogue hero played by a talented lead (Natey Jones as Ivan), great music and an enthusiastic ensemble. It also benefits from the swiftly moving direction of Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo.
Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the book, follows for the most part the storyline of the film.
Ivan, an aspiring songwriter/singer comes to live with his mother in Kingston after the death of his grandmother. Before very long he is undone by a series of setbacks. He is robbed of all his belongings. He gets a job with a preacher (J. Bernard Calloway), only to lose it when he falls for Elsa (Meecah), the very same woman the preacher is unsuccessfully courting. He injures a man in a fight over his stolen bike and is whipped by the authorities. He is exploited by a bigtime record producer who gives him a mere $20 for “The Harder They Come.”
Finally, Ivan’s friend, José (Dominique Johnson), gets him a job running marijuana. He’s bringing home steady money to Elsa, who is now his wife. But Ivan soon learns he is getting only a fraction of the profits drug trafficking brings in. Things go from bad to worse.
However, Parks has made a few major changes. She has simplified the plot, turned Ivan into a more faithful and upright person, made José into a better friend and included fewer encounters with the police. All the changes serve the stage version well.
Still, it’s hard to see how The Harder They Come would make much of an impression without the glorious music. There is little chemistry between Ivan and Elsa. The preacher is a stereotypical hypocrite. The music producer is a standard bully. The book does little to turn anyone into a real rather than a representative person.
The actors do their best in unrewarding roles. And Jones and Johnson are standouts for the believable relationship they create. While Jones knocks it out of the park every time he starts singing.
In fact, if the show struggles during the dialogue it soars when the music takes over. Most of the numbers are from Jimmy Cliff’s songbook (think “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Rivers of Babylon”). But there are additional songs by Parks. They are so well integrated into the show only an expert could tell the difference.
The band – Chris Hemingway (reeds), Ravi Best (trumpet), Karl Lyden (trombone), Sherrod Bares (guitar), George Farmer (bass), Jaylen Petinaud (drums), Randy Cohen (synthesizer & keyboards) – under John Bronston’s musical direction, is dynamite. The featured actors and the ensemble work rhythmic and harmonic fireworks.
If you love reggae, The Harder They Come is a must. Otherwise, it’s still strongly recommended.
The Harder They Come
Through April 2, 2023
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street.
Photography: Joan Marcus