Theater: “The Harder They Come” @ the Public
When people think of reggae, they often think of Bob Marley, but some of us remember Jimmy Cliff. This Jamaican-born superstar, alive and kicking at 79, started making waves as a teenager, both on the island and in Brazil. In 1970, he wrote “Vietnam,” which Bob Dylan called the greatest protest song he’d ever heard.
But it was not until 1972 that he electrified Jamaica—and college kids like me—in “The Harder They Come,” a film about a young man-turned-outlaw. The movie soundtrack became a classic, and the movie’s story provides the basis for a new Suzan-Lori Parks jukebox musical, “The Harder They Come,” now in previews at the Public.
Ivan (the British performer Natey Jones) is a country bumpkin who comes to Kingston, guitar in hand, intent on becoming a superstar. But the fates conspire against him, and on Day One, he is robbed of his possessions (including his guitar.) Desperate for money and shelter, he turns to a church where he is taken in, and where he promptly falls in love with Elsa (the excellent Meecah), the ward of the fiery Preacher (J. Bernard Callaway).
But Ivan isn’t content with the menial tasks Preacher assigns him. Argumentative and rebellious by nature, he sneaks out and pitches his music to Hilton (Housson Semon), the sleazy local record producer. Hilton recognizes his talent but offers him a grand total of $20. Pfft.
Continuing to feel the deck is stacked against him, and desperate for a quick buck, Ivan and his buddy Pedro (Jacob Ming-Trent) turn to Jose (Dominique Johnson), the local ganja dealer. While Ivan and Jose argue about getting a share of the spoils, a policeman comes along, and in a moment of panic, Ivan shoots and kills him. Fleeing the scene of the crime, he becomes a local folk hero and his song “The Harder They Come” is played everywhere on the radio, thereby achieving the fame he could not get legitimately.
Parks has woven in Cliff’s songs (some good, some mediocre) into the production as well as her own. The overall effect is underwhelming, unfortunately. The good ensemble numbers are as scarce as a Jamaican bobsled competition, and the choreography pales by comparison to that of current Broadway hits like’”Some Like It Hot” and “& Juliet”. The cast is a mixed bag: Jones is merely serviceable as Ivan, while Jeanette Bayardelle who is superb as Daisy, Ivan’s mother, has a wonderful voice we don’t hear until the end.
Moreover, the play, seen through 2023 eyes, may raise bigger questions for some theatergoers, such as why killing someone should be regarded as a revolutionary act, rather than one man’s grudge at not catching a break.
Jimmy Cliff went on to musical superstardom, contributing his talents to such legends as Kool and the Gang, the E Street Band, the Rolling Stones and Joe Strummer. In 2020, he was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Surely, he deserves a better tribute than this nothing-special production. Sorry/not sorry.