'The Harder They Come' review — new musical has big beats and big potential
Read our five-star review of The Harder They Come, a musical based on the same-named 1972 film, playing off Broadway at The Public Theater through April 9.
The Harder They Come is the new musical adaptation of the critically acclaimed 1972 film of the same name. The world premiere tuner at The Public Theater features a book by Suzan-Lori Parks and songs by Jimmy Cliff, including reggae hits such as “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” plus new songs by Parks.
Scenic designers Clint Ramos and Diggle transform the Public’s Newman Theater space into a Jamaican shanty town with colorful tin structures covered in palm fronds, globe lights, and music speakers. The stage creatively features two spinning turntables, resembling a disc jockey’s one and twos.
The musical follows Ivan (an impressive Natey Jones in his U.S. debut), a country boy with city dreams. His determination is unflappable, and he arrives in the capital of Jamaica swinging. “Hello, Kingston! Me name Ivan! I’m going to make a record, you know. I’m going to be a star!” The busy throng of shopkeepers, residents, and trade workers bristle at his unbridled enthusiasm.
Ivan finds work at a congregation, where he falls for Elsa (Meecah), the ward and love interest of the preacher (J. Bernard Calloway). With Elsa in tow, Ivan leaves the church and finds a job at a dance club. He records a song with the powerful music producer Mr. Hilton but refuses to sign the low contract he offers. Ivan wants to do things his way. Unbeknownst to Elsa, Ivan begins working in the “fishing business” — the ganja trade — to earn a living and support his musical career.
The music industry and the ganja industry, it turns out, are inextricably linked. Ivan rocks the boat wherever he goes, and instead of making a music record, he winds up mounting a criminal record. "Around here, it takes more than talent to get a fair shake," he laments. "People trying to keep me down everywhere I turn!"
Directors Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo lead with airtight precision. The musical moves quickly, and the propulsive energy is in constant motion. One of the most inventive scenes is set at The Rialto, a cinema where Ivan and some acquaintances watch a Western film. A white sheet becomes the film screen, and spinning velvet sets become a barrier as the moviegoers engage in a rousing game of cowboys and Native Americans while singing “Hero Don’t Never Die.” (It’s a bit of foreshadowing for Ivan’s hero journey.)
Another strong (and quick) scene begins with the congregation singing the hymnal “Closer Walk With Thee.” The prayer swiftly turns into a dance-hall fantasy, and as Elsa averts her attention from Jesus to Ivan, she strips off her choir robe to reveal a tight-fitting dress. Ivan and Elsa dance and gyrate on a club platform (choreography is by Edgar Godineaux), and the surrounding choir members disrobe and rapidly dress again to finish the hymn. The preacher remains in place, unmoored.
Jones is one of many strong performers. Upon meeting Elsa, Ivan declares, “You sing like a bird, you know.” Indeed, Meecah and her beautiful voice shine in this role. Like Ivan, Elsa is a big dreamer, and she charms and inspires. Another standout performance is Jacob Ming-Trent as Pedro, Ivan’s loyal best friend who helps him settle in Kingston. Pedro takes center stage for his big number, “The Ballad of Ivan,” driving support for Ivan as his friend runs from the police.
The cost of fame is very high. Ivan’s nickname morphs from “country boy” to “pretty boy” to “the outlaw” in just a short while. He is like Icarus, flying too close to the hot Caribbean sun. “I thought my wits and charm could get me out front,” Ivan concedes to his mom as he prepares to flee.
New, exciting musicals are hard to come by, and The Harder They Come features a big cast with big beats — and big potential.
The Harder They Come is at The Public Theater through April 9. Get The Harder They Come tickets on New York Theatre Guide.
Photo credit: Natey Jones (center) and the cast of The Harder They Come. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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