The Harder They Come Musical, Barbican Theatre, London
People can be divided into two groups – those who love musicals and those who emphatically don’t. And rarely have the twain met, until now. The stage adaptation of The Harder They Come, based on Perry Henzel’s 1972 “gateway” reggae movie of the same name, makes a bold attempt at pleasing both parties, maintaining the blithe spirit of a feelgood singalong without losing the story’s heart or the legitimacy of the music at its core.
After a triumphant run at the Barbican, the action has relocated southwest to the Playhouse on Northumberland Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Thames. A proudly displayed Mail On Sunday review is riddled with cliché (“the joint jumping” “snake hipped jive” and the performers “instinct” to dance) yet brimming with well-meant praise. Inside some of the cast are already on stage, banging Nyabinghi rhythms on the drums and playing dominoes, whilst other players meet and greet the audience to get them in the mood.
Henzel and co-directors Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid have not been too free and easy with the plot - unlike the West End version of Mel Brooks’ dark comedy The Producers, which left key characters on the rehearsal room floor. A talent show scenario is both topical and authentic, whilst a discussion of royalties touches another aural issue of today. Hero Ivan is more of a clown, who finally becomes truly violent after repeated mishaps; love interest Elsa is more giggly and demure than her stoical celluloid inspiration; badman Jose is only a peripheral villain this time; and the herb grower Pedro’s part is now a keystone of the script.
There is no shying away from the ambiguity of the record and ganja business. Nonetheless, some of the screenplay’s darker elements have necessitated adjustments in tone. Much of its sadness comes via sotto versions of soundtrack favourites like Stop That Train and Rivers Of Babylon, while the decision to keep the cast and musicians on stage throughout captures the crowded Kingston streets, and the radio, which figured so strongly in the film, is as present as ever, promising everyone a better life.
But what lifts The Harder They Come above all but the most militant reggae geek expectations is the execution of the songs. The incredible band does no injustice to the harmonies of The Maytals Sweet & Dandy or the chugging rhythm guitar of the title track. And though Roland Bell’s Ivan rightly has the most powerful voice, it is Marlon King (as Pedro) whose grainier more soulful Many Rivers To Cross steals the night.
There is a danger that this slick, but never too glitzy production, may be taken by the public-at-large as music fossilised in the amber of its golden age. Already Nick Hasted in the Independent has argued that it represents “what reggae can be at its best”. One can only hope anybody who discovers reggae at this show is encouraged to investigate contemporary Jamaican music and culture, finding such doom and gloom more than a little misplaced.
Review by Angus Taylor
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