The Harder They Come Toronto

The Harder They Come is Rhygin!

It's been a while since I saw a musical that made me want to get up and dance. The Harder They Come accomplishes just that.

I've found that Toronto audiences much too easily give a standing ovation, but at last night's opening show of the Mirvish production at Canon Theatre, it was rightly deserved.

This Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts production of the Perry Henzell hit (based on the 1972 film starring Jimmy Cliff) comes off a successful run in London's West End. If you embrace the culture of reggae music, you'll likely enjoy this show immensely.

The Harder They Come tells the story of Ivanhoe Martin, a country boy who sets out to make it big as a reggae star in Kingston, Jamaica. It's chock-full of songs like You Can Get it if You Really Want, Many Rivers To Cross, Higher and Higher and Rivers of Babylon. When he realizes the music industry isn't working in his favour, he takes the law into his own hands, becoming an underground outlaw propelled by his new-found popularity, but at the expense of his life.

It's a bittersweet story that isn't told in song, but still features many great tunes. One of the more poignant lines comes from the title song, in which he sings, "I'd rather be a free man in my grave than living as a puppet or a slave."

I knew I was in for a different sort of performance when I was greeted by a wide-smiling cast member in the theatre lobby prior to the show. And when I proceeded to my seat I saw the rest of the cast on stage already, going about their business on the set as if it were their own house.

The stage design was sparse but effective, and we got to see the band perform behind the principal cast, becoming very much a part of the show itself, since the story is deeply rooted in the music. Soon a gospel choir began rehearsing, and I knew the show itself was about to start, even if it was rather delayed. Or, as the couple behind me noted, "They must be on Jamaican time."

The Jamaican patois may be a bit thick to the untrained ear, but you get used to it after a while.

The quality of singing is uniformly strong in this cast. Outstanding voices included those of Ivan the lead character, played by Rolan Bell and Pedro, played by Lain Gray.

One of the only things I found detracted from the show was some of the singer's voices, which were unevenly matched in volume. Especially when they were talking. And especially that of Pinky played by Susan Lawson Reynolds, whose character really stood out anyway in her white, knee-high go-go boots, red dress and huge 'fro.

Consider bringing your own herb (stepping outside of both the building and the law, but of course) and indulge during the 15-minute break... otherwise the second half will go by quicker than you know it. Speaking of intermission, I like how the food and drink options match the show. You'll get to choose from food options like Jamaican patties or plantain chips for $2 each or Jerk chicken for just $6. Priced right too. If you imbibe in the booze, there's some tasty Jamaican rum-based options as well as the regular fare.

The Harder They Come comes to Toronto for the first stop on an international tour. Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $95. Each performance will have 300 mezzanine seats available for $25 (weekday shows) and $30 (weekend shows).

Photo by Robert Day.

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