The bigger the venue, the smaller the impact. That seems to be the destiny of “The Harder They Come,” Perry Henzell’s musicalization of his own iconic 1972 film, which made reggae a household world and Jimmy Cliff a worldwide star. The show began with two successful runs in the 470-seat Theater Royal, Stratford East. It went on to the 1,400-seat Barbican in London to less enthusiastic response and now lands with a dull thud on the stage of Toronto’s 2,300-seat Canon, making its North American premiere as part of the Mirvish subscription season.
Show tells the story of Ivan (Rolan Bell), a Caribbean Candide who wants to be a pop star and will do anything to achieve that, even becoming a major player in the drug trade. His success displeases the corrupt police force, and when they try to break up one of his concerts, he shoots two of them dead. The rest of the second act catalogues Ivan’s eventual demise and canonization by the Jamaican people.
The touchy situation in Toronto’s black neighborhoods, where gang violence is claiming an increasing number of lives, doesn’t necessarily make this the most receptive venue for such a tale. And the fact that the musical waters down the film’s serious look at corruption of the Jamaican power structure, turning it into broad cartoons, doesn’t help in presenting Ivan as a hero.
These problems are exacerbated at the Canon. It’s possible to imagine how the show’s minimalist production values, slapdash dramaturgy and let’s-put-on-a-show staging might have worked in the rough-and-ready atmosphere of Stratford East.
But the gigantic, gilded Canon is only really a comfortable home for behemoths like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Wicked,” and this simple tale of an island boy trying to make good gets lost. The theater’s problematic acoustics aren’t helped by a feeble sound design and the cast’s use of heavy Jamaican dialect.
Even the reggae music, supposedly the production’s main selling point, sounds juiceless and powerless. A cast whose singing doesn’t stand up in the huge venue damages the material further.
In the leading role of Ivan, Bell (who has played the part in London), has a certain raffish charm, but none of the Cliff charisma needed to hold the show together; his off-key singing is frequently jarring. Joanna Francis’ sweet ingenue and Lain Gray’s sagacious buddy are the best of a supporting cast, all of whom play their roles as if in an amateur production flung together at the last minute.
Direction by Dawn Reid and Kerry Michael lacks shape and tension, while Jackie Guy’s musical staging restricts itself to the chorus doing unison moves behind lead singers.
“The Harder They Come” might work in a North American market if it sharpened itself up and returned to an Off Broadway-style venue. But in its current state — overblown and underwhelming — it doesn’t stand a chance this side of the Atlantic.