Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Harder They Come

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 15, 2023

Natey Jones and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Harder They Come, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' adaptation of the reggae-infused 1972 Jamaican film of the same title, is rocking the Public Theater these days with its top-notch cast, an expansive score of nearly three dozen numbers, and a thoroughly inviting irie vibe. It's pretty much a must-see for fans of the movie, which has achieved cult status over the years, and of the music that made a global star of singer Jimmy Cliff. But even the uninitiated will likely fall under the spell of the beguiling performances, music, and dance.

Parks, who contributed three songs to the production, has wisely smoothed out the heaviest elements of the film's overall outlaw theme while maintaining its basic plot. Naïve country boy Ivan (Natey Jones, a sexy charmer) comes to Kingston with big plans to become a singing sensation, only to find out that the chips are stacked against anyone with his kind of open and straightforward approach to dealing with people. He makes a few enemies among the rich and powerful, and he winds up in a heap of trouble when he gets involved in the ganja trade and winds up shooting a policeman.

The plot, especially as it has been distilled for the show, resembles that of the cowboy movies that Ivan loves so much, the ones in which, as one of Parks' own songs goes, "Hero Don't Never Die." But, really, this presentment of The Harder They Come is largely about the music, which gives us not only a hefty dose of well-known reggae tunes ("You Can Get It If You Really Want," "I Can See Clearly Now," and the title song, among others), but also a grand mix of the sounds of ska, rocksteady, soca, calypso, funk, and some mighty rousing gospel numbers, all splendidly supported by the talented and versatile band members.

And while Natey Jones as Ivan is undoubtedly the show's star, he is surrounded by other terrific performers. Notable are J. Bernard Calloway as Preacher (intimidating), who has been grooming his ward Elsa (Meecah, a firebrand) to be his wife, and the dreadlock-wearing Jacob Ming-Trent as Ivan's friend Pedro. But, truly, there's not a single person on stage who doesn't sing up a storm when it's their turn at bat.

The production, co-directed by Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, is well served by the ensemble, Edgar Godineaux's choreography, and the set design by Clint Ramos and Diggle. Many hands, many voices, and yet all cut from the same exuberant cloth. By any measure, The Harder They Come is a decided success for the Public Theater and deserves a long life after this run has ended. I do hope that Jimmy Cliff, whose songs are so wonderfully presented here and who is still performing himself at the age of 78, has had the opportunity to see it. Not officially a tribute production, of course, but a worthy tribute nonetheless.

The Harder They Come
Through April 9, 2023
Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: