Adapting a beloved film for the stage is a delicate balancing act as you need to appeal to both the fans of the original while also engaging a new audience for the story. The Harder They Come, now playing at the Public, is based on the hit 1972 Jamaican film of the same name and, while it includes the famous songs by Jimmy Cliff who starred in the movie, some aspects of the new version appear to dilute its charismatic, edgy, grittiness.
Natey Jones bears an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Cliff in the role of Ivan, a country bumpkin who arrives in Kingston dreaming of becoming a star. Ivan is all wide-eyed innocence and fervent ambition. After much striving, he makes a hit record but finds that the cards are stacked against him when he tries to circumvent the entrenched music industry–a situation that still confronts many aspiring musicians. When Ivan’s dreams of stardom implode, quashed by corrupt music producers, he turns to drug dealing and then a life of crime, with tragic consequences. These broad-brush elements of the new musical, with a book by Suzan-Lori Parks, hew closely to the original. But Parks has both modernized and simplified the rest of the plot and expanded the role of some female characters. This serves to not only make the show seem more contemporary, but also requires some new songs to flesh out the female parts. This is where the Jimmy Cliff songs and others used on the movie soundtrack outshine the new numbers. The show will be a revelation to those new to such classic numbers as “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “Hard Road to Travel”, and the title song, and will delight those who know them well. However, while Meecah in the role of Elsa, Ivan’s love who he meets as soon as he arrives in the big city, gives her all to the solo “Hymn”, it lacks both the lyric power and verve of some of the original numbers.
Parks has also chosen to make Ivan’s mother play a larger role. Jeannette Bayardelle lends her extraordinary voice to the part but her continued concern for Ivan is at odds with the self-interested indifference shown to him by the mother in the film.
The show also recreates some of the church scenes from the movie complete with the gospel choir. Here, Ivan and Elsa’s true feelings for each other are acted out in a raunchy dance number replacing an ocean smooch in the original. It’s a funny moment, part of a comic current that runs through the show. In addition to Meecah and Natey Jones, other powerful performances by Dominque Johnson and Jacob Ming Trent as Ivan’s friends round out an excellent cast. The live band are also outstanding.
The two-level set by Clint Ramos and Diggle features a walkway from which actors can look down on the action on stage and closely resembles the tatty vibrancy of Kingston’s streets. But the costumes by Emilio Sosa lack the wild style sported by Jimmy Cliff in the film. Indeed, some of the female attire in particular seems to have slipped a few decades earlier than the fashions of the 1970s. The choreography by Edgar Godineaux also, perhaps deliberately, skews more contemporary than true to the period.
The thrust of the plot is the erosion of Ivan’s illusions. But Parks also makes a link to current events that might be ripped from recent headlines about police violence. This decision brings new relevance to Ivan’s story that updates the inevitable downward spiral for modern audiences.