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Theatre in Review: The Harder They Come (Public Theater)

Natey Jones. Photo: Joan Marcus

Ask any show fan and you'll get the same answer: A musical has a score (recorded on an original cast album) and a film has a soundtrack. (In certain theatre chat rooms, if you confuse the two, they will flay you alive.) The distinction is real: A musical theatre score has work to do, revealing the characters' deepest feelings and most closely held secrets; a song that doesn't move the story along can't be justified. A soundtrack is, basically, background music, setting a mood and often not much else; even when it yields a pop hit, the result is usually generic, suitable for multiple occasions. This, in short, is the problem with The Harder They Come: It has a soundtrack, and it's not enough.

To be sure, the chief allure of Perry Henzell's 1972 film of the same name, the star attraction of a thousand midnight-movie screenings, has always been its playlist. A tale of music and crime in Jamaica, it suffers from continuity issues and require subtitles, so thick is the patois spoken by the characters. But it has a gritty authenticity along with such insanely catchy tunes as "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "I Can See Clearly Now," and the title number. Reggae, the island's great contribution to pop music, was new to the American ear and would soon be appropriated by acts ranging from Paul Simon to Three Dog Night.

Suzan-Lori Parks' book, based on the screenplay by Henzell and Trevor Rhone, is, as you would expect, a smoother, clearer piece of storytelling, but she also softens the narrative considerably. Based on the career of a real-life criminal, it follows country-boy Ivan who comes to Kingston in 1970; penniless yet determined to make it as a singer-songwriter, he takes refuge in a church community where he mortally offends the preacher by stealing the heart of Elsa, a winsome young congregant. It's not the last time Ivan's impulsive nature gets him into trouble. He rebels against an exploitative music producer and becomes involved in the ganja trade, running afoul of the law after he shoots a cop. Taking it on the run, he becomes a pop hero to his fellow citizens.

Onstage, The Harder They Come is a slick, two-dimensional melodrama set to a playlist of reggae hits, but Parks' by-the-numbers approach does away with the film's blaxploitation edge. On screen, Ivan is a largely amoral figure who commits several murders, cheats on Elsa without a second thought, and revels in his newfound notoriety. The musical makes him into a downtrodden hero tilting against a corrupt power structure (which is more mordantly depicted in the film). Ivan may come to grief, we are told, but his music will live on: "You can't kill my song!" he insists repeatedly. Henzell and Rhone harshly examine the nature of their post-colonial society; Parks turns the story into a tame romantic ballad about an artist struggling to make it. Most of the time, The Harder They Come doesn't come very hard at all.

The score, expanded with additional reggae hits and some contemporary contributions by Parks, remains eminently listenable and most likely you will find yourself swaying in your seat from time to time. But the numbers address the characters and their situations in only the most generalized way, doing very little to dramatize the notion that Ivan is a people's hero sticking it to the man. One could arguably reshuffle the song order without materially affecting the narrative.

Any rough edges left over from Parks' adaptation are sanded away in Tony Taccone's production, which is set in a rainbow-colored shanty town, designed by Clint Ramos and Diggle, that looks like a Potemkin village erected for the tourist trade. (The Fauvist colors of Hana S. Kim's projection design add to the overly bright feeling.) The UK-based actor Natey Jones has a certain natural charisma as Ivan, but he can't transcend the limitations of his one-note character. The one-named Meecah is an appealing presence as Elsa, but she is stuck with a standard girlfriend role. (A sequence, copied from the film, in which Ivan and Elsa, singing in church, steamily imagine a sexual encounter, falls flat.) Jacob Ming-Trent is solid as Ivan's partner in selling weed. ("We call it the fishing business," he says, an amusing line lifted from the film.) In the villain department, J. Bernard Calloway snarls effectively as the preacher who lusts for Elsa and Dominique Johnson has a gin-and-tonic cool as a drug kingpin. At the performance I attended, Garfield Hammonds stepped into the role of a music industry godfather type with aplomb.

Taccone's staging is at least swift, even if Edgar Godineaux's choreography seems more decorative than essential. Emilio Sosa's costumes capture the Jamaican styles of the period without being overly flashy. Japhy Weideman's lighting effortlessly shifts from floods of sunshine to batteries of saturated color, also creating searchlight effects when Ivan goes on the run. Unlike the film, you can understand every word, thanks to Walter Trarbach's sound design; he also supplies some startling gunplay effects.

Overall, The Harder They Come suffers from point-of-view problems. It never seems to know what to do with Ivan, especially in the later scenes when he becomes an outlaw on the run. (His status is foreshadowed early, when he attends the screening of a spaghetti Western, cuing the number "Hero Don't Never Die." Not even fifteen minutes in, it's clear that he is toast.) It's unclear what attracted the creative team to this material, other than the desire to create a hit musical. You might expect this sort of easy, unchallenging entertainment on Broadway, but at the Public? Really? --David Barbour

(15 March 2023)

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