Review: In 'The Harder They Come,' innocence lost to a reggae beat

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: In 'The Harder They Come,' innocence lost to a reggae beat
Natey Jones, center, as Ivan in the musical “The Harder They Come” at the Public Theater in New York, March 3, 2023. A stage adaptation of the 1972 movie about a Jamaican singer turned outlaw hero sounds great but falls hard at the Public Theater. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- It looks like such a bright, sunshiny day as the lights rise on “The Harder They Come,” the reggae musical that opened on Wednesday at the Public Theater. The patchwork vibrancy of Kingston, Jamaica, where the story takes place, is efficiently and joyfully sketched in a tin-sided, palm-fronded, louvered and latticed streetscape, lit in happy yellows and purples and bursting with people wearing island florals. And when we meet our hero, the “country boy” Ivan, who has come to the city to seek his fortune as a singer, he is bubbly and hopeful, with a bubbly and hopeful opening number to match: “You Can Get It If You Really Want.”

But can you?

Alas, over the next two hours or so, the answer will prove to be no, not just for Ivan but also for the audience. Like the chaotic 1972 movie it’s based on, which helped introduce reggae to audiences beyond Jamaica through the songs and charisma of Jimmy Cliff, the musical, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, is yanked apart by irreconcilable aims. The uplift of the infectiously danceable tunes keeps obscuring what turns out to be a deeply unsunny story.

Not that the movie, directed and co-written by Perry Henzell, was very clear to begin with. Though considered a landmark by many, and certainly a point of national pride for Jamaica, it cannot count narrative logic as one of its strong suits. Its fascination is more like that of a fable, tracing the quick, jagged course of Ivan’s descent. Barely off the bus to visit his mother, he’s robbed of his meager belongings; soon thereafter he’s robbed of his soul, forced to sell his first song for just $20.

Conflicts with the church (he falls for Elsa, a preacher’s ward), the police (he’s punished with lashings for defending himself) and even the ganja trade (what do you know, it’s corrupt!) gradually turn his disillusion into derangement. By the time this Candide becomes a semi-psychotic outlaw idol, like the characters in spaghetti Westerns, it’s hard to keep track of the chain of injustice or even just the genre.

If it’s easy to see why Parks might have wanted to work with this rich material — the movie’s soundtrack is deservedly a classic — it’s also clear that it needed rethinking for the stage. Yet her adaptation is full of choices that, however sensible they seem at first, ultimately make the problems worse.

To give the story larger and more legible implications, she pushes the loosely drawn characters of the movie toward greater extremes of badness and goodness. The preacher is not just a hypocrite but a full-blown Judge Turpin, all but slavering over Elsa. The payola-scheming music executive and the police officer who controls the drug cartel are not just grifters but sharky megalomaniacs.

At the same time, Ivan (Natey Jones) is radically softened, as if the muddled moral middle ground were a dangerous place to locate a musical. His braggadocio is sanded down to mere optimism, his crimes minimized and justified to emphasize his essential innocence. This takes a bizarrely conventional turn in his courtship of Elsa, whom he doesn’t merely shack up with but marries.

Evidently the idea is to downplay the characters’ complexity and culpability in favor of an overtly political interpretation of the story that the movie, in its laid-back way, was mostly content to suggest without comment. Parks’ script, and the staging by Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, heavily underline the larger forces — colonialism, capitalism, racism — that help explain or even require Ivan’s bad choices.

Though that’s perfectly valid in theory, the heavy-handedness is quite a surprise coming from Parks, whose greatest plays float at the midpoint between archetype and individual. “Father Comes Home From the Wars” superimposes Homer’s “Odyssey” on the tale of a Black man who buys his freedom by fighting for the Confederacy. “Topdog/Underdog,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and was recently revived on Broadway, pulls off a similar balancing act in telling the story of hustling Black brothers named Lincoln and Booth.

That balance has been thrown off in “The Harder They Come.” One reason is that the original was a movie with songs, and the songs were all diegetic: They arose from situations in which characters were actually singing, in a church or nightclub or recording studio. But because Parks was writing a musical, the songs had to do and be much more. The movie’s short tunestack — really just four or five main numbers — would have to be expanded.

Still, it was another reasonable idea that backfired to expand it quite this much: There are 33 numbers listed in the program. About a dozen are by Cliff, from the movie or elsewhere; several are by other songwriters of the period; and three quite good ones are by Parks herself. (In her non-playwriting life, Parks fronts a “Modern Soul, Black-Country, Psychedelic-Afro-Righteous” band.) They’re deftly arranged for eight musicians by Kenny Seymour.

But to accommodate so many, most are reduced to mere atmospheric snippets, curtailing their effectiveness. Even when they are pushed toward more prominence, they tend to evaporate on contact, as they’re forced, like the songs in jukebox musicals, into uses for which they weren’t designed. The rhythmic groove that makes reggae so intoxicating prevents the kind of development that edges a character forward, just as the repeated chorus structure, usually with repeated lyrics to match, stalls when deployed as drama.

At least the songs are sung well: Jones is as beamish as his music sounds; you can see and hear how his Ivan might be the star the show says he is. Meecah, as Elsa, and Jeannette Bayardelle, as Ivan’s mother — both roles greatly expanded to counteract the episodic nature of the underlying material — take full advantage of their brief vocal moments to shine. As the preacher, J. Bernard Calloway rattles the rafters with “Let’s Come in the House,” a terrific gospel shout. The rest of the ensemble backs them up appealingly, and dances Edgar Godineaux’s choreography even more so.

Still, the promise of the show, like the promise of its opening imagery — sets by Clint Ramos and Diggle, lighting by Japhy Weideman, costumes by Emilio Sosa — goes largely unfulfilled. Neither its satire of criminal celebrity nor its tragedy of sullied innocence nor even the sonic pleasure of its catchy score escapes the distorting gravity of its oversize intentions. Instead, “The Harder They Come” falls right into the trap of the rest of that title lyric: “the harder they fall.”

‘The Harder They Come’

Through April 2 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

March 17, 2023

A 1,600-year-old coffin may shed light on Roman Britain

Bridget Riley: Solo exhibition at Art Central 2023

Getty adds Early Medieval manuscript and Annibale Carracci painting

Phyllida Barlow, British sculptor of playful, scale-defying works, dies at 78

Lost portrait of Sitting Bull, painted from life, to be auctioned March 18 in Florida

Phillips unveils Patek Philippe wristwatch and artefacts once belonging to the Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

Tadao Ando has been awarded the commission for the 10th MPavilion

The Philadelphia Show announces programming and special exhibitions for its 51st edition

Pearl Lam Galleries presents new exhibition depicting design as an art form

Lehmann Maupin now representing artist Sung Neung Kyung

Photographs spanning the centuries to highlight Phillips' spring auction in New York

Twenty Years in Mayfair online sale to benefit The Caring Family Foundation

'Receiver' by contemporary sculptor Huma Bhabha arrives on campus at UNC Greensboro

Swann Galleries' March 23rd auction to feature Dada & Surrealism

Exhibition featuring works by Katy Cowan opens at Miles McEnery Gallery

Carolyn Lazard explores legacy of dance film through Lens of Accessibility in new commision at ICA

Lynn Seymour, acclaimed ballerina and a dramatic force, dies at 83

LAPADA takes centre stage as London's leading art and antiques fair

Why is Bronislava Nijinska still waiting in the wings?

Review: In 'The Harder They Come,' innocence lost to a reggae beat

The unsinkable Marilyn Maye

Original, unrestored posters for some of the greatest movies ever to be sold online this April

Orianna Cacchione to join AD&A Museum as assistant director

Tips For Preparing For And Recovering From Full Body Waxing

How to Start Your Career in Illustration?

Why is the VPN Industry Benefited?

Why Artists Should Be Using TikTok

Alejandro Apodaca's new project Samsaro: The next big thing in Latin urban music

The Universe of Romanian-British painter Bogdan Mihai Radu

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful