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.