“The Harder They Come” is a largely faithful stage adaptation of the 1972 movie starring Jimmy Cliff that is said to have introduced the world to reggae music; its fidelity to the original is both a boon and a bust. The stage musical, at the Public Theater through April 9, offers some terrific tunes — including eternal hits like the title song and “You Can Get It If You Really Want It” — turned into musical numbers enhanced by lively choreography. But the musical also essentially replicates the plot of the movie, which begins freshly, offering a glimpse into Jamaican culture and society, but ends as a genre picture – what movie critic Roger Ebert at the time called “a Jamaican version of the standard black exploitation movie, with guns and gangsters and a flashy superhero turned folk hero.”
Natey Jones portrays the character that Jimmy Cliff played in the movie, Ivan, a naïve young man from the Jamaican countryside who arrives in Kingston with dreams of becoming a famous singer. He is quickly faced with the reality of life in a big city, scammed out of all his belongings by a street vendor, unable to find honest employment.
Eventually, Preacher (J. Bernard Calloway) offers him shelter and employment, but becomes his adversary when Ivan falls in love with Elsa (Meecah), Preacher’s young ward, whom Preacher himself covets. Ivan fights back, getting into a physical altercation with Preacher, a preview of his battles yet to come against a series of unjust and corrupt men – Hilton (Ken Robinson), an exploitative record producer who monopolizes the industry and offers him just twenty dollars for the rights to his hit song; Jose (Dominique Johnson) who got him into the ganja business, but underpays him; the corrupt police represented by Ray (Dudney Joseph Jr.) who decides to arrest Ivan because Jose pegs him as a troublemaker. Ivan’s defiance turns violent, and he becomes a self-mythologizing outlaw.
Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the book for the musical and three new songs, has made any number of changes. Some emphasize points already made in the movie. As in the movie, Ivan and his new friends watch the climax of a movie called Django in which the lone hero is greatly outgunned, but kills all his adversaries – helping to plant the delusional idea of the invincible outlaw in Ivan’s head, much to his ultimate detriment. The musical adds a number composed by Parks, “Hero Don’t Never Die.”
Some changes try to do justice to characters given short-shrift in the movie, such as Daisy, Ivan’s mother (Jeannette Bayardelle), who is made more sympathetic and given more than just the one scene the character got in the movie.
Some of the change can be read as efforts to tone down the gangster genre elements. Ivan isn’t quite as gleeful about his criminality in the stage musical; he shoots just one cop, instead of a bevy of them, and only after the cop shoots first (although, to the musical’s credit, he doesn’t do this in self-defense, but in anger.)
It’s unlikely that many of the changes will be noticeable to anybody who hasn’t recently seen the movie (currently available on several streaming services.) Toned down or not, shooting a realistic-looking gun, accompanied by the amplified sound of a gunshot, felt out of place on a New York stage.
“The Harder They Come” offers almost three dozen musical numbers, far more songs than were in the movie, even though the running time, about 105 minutes (this is minus the intermission) is almost exactly the same. I suppose that all these musical numbers should be a plus, but they started to sound too much the same to me. I also wonder whether their profusion is at all responsible for what felt like competent but not especially memorable performances – even from proven talents like Jacob Ming-Trent, who was so terrific in the Public’s summer 2021 production of “Merry Wives”, but here gets little chance to shine as Ivan’s best friend Pedro.
Shortcomings aside, there is so much in “The Harder They Come” that feels made for musical theater, and that I welcome – the great music, yes; the serious issues that reflect the growing pains of a recently independent nation, certainly; but also the Jamaican-tinted set and costumes, even the hats; kudos to costume designer Emilio Sosa for the mustard cap, knit hat, newsboy cap, stripe tam, head wraps, white fedora and Rastacaps that evoke a distinctive and literally colorful time and place.
The Harder They Come
Public Theater through April 9
Running time: Two hours including intermission
Book by Suzan-Lori Parks
Including Songs by Jimmy Cliff
Additional New Songs by Suzan-Lori Parks
Based upon the film, produced and directed by Perry Henzell and co-written with Trevor Rhone
Music Supervision, Orchestrations, and Arrangements by Kenny Seymour
Choreography by Edgar Godineaux
Co-Directed by Sergio Trujillo
Directed by Tony Taccone
Scenic design by Clint Ramos & Diggle, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, sound design by Walter Trarbach, hair wig and makeup design by Earon Chew Nealey, projection design by Hana S. Kim, fight and intimacy director Rocio Mendez
Cast: Jeannette Bayardelle (Daisy), Shawn Bowers (Ensemble), J. Bernard Calloway (Preacher), Andrew Clarke (Lyle), Tyla Collier (Understudy), Jamal Christopher Douglas (Ensemble), Tiffany Francès (Understudy), Garfield Hammonds (Understudy), Dana Marie Ingraham (Ensemble), Dominique Johnson (Jose), Chelsea-Ann Jones (Ensemble), Natey Jones (Ivan), Dudney Joseph Jr (Ray), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (Understudy), Morgan McGhee (Ensemble), Meecah (Elsa), Jacob Ming-Trent (Pedro), Alysha Morgan (Ensemble), Ken Robinson (Hilton), Housso Semon (Ensemble), Denver Andre Taylor (Understudy), Sir Brock Warren (Ensemble), Carla Woods (Understudy), and Christopher Henry Young (Ensemble).