The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: The Public’s The Harder They Come
Running in near the end of its run at The Public Theatre, The Harder They Come starts strong and dances forward. It is infectious and playful, with a wide-eyed hero at the center carrying some big dreams and ideas. “You Can Get It If You Really Want” is the underlying theme for the first half, as the energy and joy that is flung out by this straightforward musical digs into the reggae soundtrack of life. We watch this young man, Ivan, played with energy and a volatile charisma by Natey Jones (NT’s Small Island) with a youthful grin arrive in to the town of Kingston, Jamaica with a song in his heart and a big dream high up in the skies. He subtly asks us to join him in his climb, and even though few others in his life do, we happily ride along beside him, giving in to his optimism and his good-natured dream.
In 1972, the Jamaican cult film, “The Harder They Come” opened to massive crowds at the Carib Theatre in the heart of Kingston. Powered by the charismatic Jimmy Cliff, the film attempted to put forth complicated moral questions that spoke to the challenges within Jamaican society in the early stages of its post-colonial world. Directed by Perry Henzell, the film arrived with what many say is one of the greatest, most influential reggae soundtracks ever released into the world. Jamaicans rejoiced, having finally heard their own voice in that film’s soundtrack. So adapting this internationally treasured classic for the stage presented lots of obstacles and plenty of traps.
The Public Theater, though, found its path, giving the adaptation space to unwind all the layers within. The music flourishes and invigorates. The framework and structure re-imagine and expand the landscape of the songs enveloping the stage, thanks to the fine work done by set designers Clint Ramos (Broadway’s KPOP) and Diggle (Bushwick Starr’s The Conversationalists), costume designer Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’), lighting designer Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Lobby Hero), sound designer Walter Trarbach (Broadway’s SpongeBob…), and projection designer Hana S. Kim (Broadway’s The Old Man and The Pool). The Harder They Come, with a book and some new songs by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), unearths the dreams of the young hero in a novel compelling way, as we watch him stumble along through the streets of this hard city that his mother, played tensely by Jeannette Bayardelle (Broadway’s The Girl From the North Country), wants desperately for him to leave on the next bus out.
But Ivan doesn’t want to shelve his dream. He can only follow his heart, almost without reason, which leads him into some trouble, sleeping on a bench with an empty stomach. But he also finds for himself a love story with the lovely and sweet Elsa, played confidently by Meecah (ATC’s The Secret Life of Bees). Her role is unfortunately underused, playing second fiddle and not really given much to do other than run around after him, or wait for him to return home. But for Ivan, it is his love that throws his life up in the air, causing problems within the church where he found shelter, run by the controlling preacher, played strongly by J. Bernard Calloway (Public’s Head of Passes). But it’s not his love that causes the most trouble. It is his combative hot-headed nature that comes flying out with anyone who tries to stand over him, control him, or keep his head or eyes turned down. Authority is his ruin and his Achilles heel, but in many ways, this struggle is the fuel that drives the piece forward and gives him the headlines he needs to become everything, almost, that he dreams and desires.
It’s a road we are happy to run alongside, and once he joins the “fishing business“, and starts down the pathway into petty crime, we can’t help but get nervous for all the conflicts he creates as we watch them multiply. The pushing he does to forward his music career and his crime starts to become more problematic, echoing in a larger sense the class struggles of the poor and downtrodden of Kingston. He has run-ins with the powerful music producer Hilton, played intensely by Ken Robinson (Broadway’s The Color Purple revival 2016), as well as his dealer boss, the slimy kingpin of the town, Jose, usually played by Dominique Johnson, although I saw the strong Garfield Hammonds (Alabama Shakespeare’s Jubilee) in the part. We all know where this is going, and as Ivan is transformed into a criminal local hero on the run from the police, the game has been thrown, and the chase is on, but it doesn’t fly forward for long.
Directed with a forward motion roll by Tony Taccone (Broadway’s Latin History for Morons) and co-director Sergio Trujillo (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud), The Harder They Come tries its best to bring forth an energy that engages the feel of the music, the time, and the place. I never saw the film, nor did I know much about it when I went to The Public that Sunday night, but the music, with a number of famous songs by Jimmy Cliff and the energetic movement throughout did engage and entertain. The choreography by Edgar Godineaux (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) gives off the right gyrating groove, finding an authentic edge to the story, even when the focus meanders around the immaturity of its lead hero. The stripping of robes and the re-engagement during the enthusiastic “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” is exactly what is required to keep us in the palm of its reggae handshake, and although that number elevates, it doesn’t find its way in often enough to sustain the momentum.
For a musical that takes place in Jamaica, The Harder They Come doesn’t exactly find the right balance of energetic rhythm and the cool breeze that takes its time. The music, which is at the center of this formula, lives large and strong, well-sung and performed by a talented crew of actors and musicians. But with the immense volume of numbers needed to bring this tale to its end, The Harder They Come can only microdose our collective needs. It’s a fun enjoyable engagement though but passes us by without much to hold onto leading us to walk out into the streets of downtown New York City with a smile on our face, but with a high that doesn’t last long enough to get us home with that same smile.
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