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Theatre Preview: The Harder They Come

The story of a dreamer-turned-outlaw gets a lively retelling in an acclaimed stage show featuring some of Jamaican music’s best-known songs. —By Lindsay Hope

Performers in <em>The Harder They Come</em> (photo by Robert Day).

Performers in The Harder They Come (photo by Robert Day).

The infectious rhythms and memorable melodies of the latest musical to hit Toronto come by way of a recent London stage sensation and a 1970s cult-classic film. This month, Mirvish Productions brings The Harder They Come to the Canon Theatre for its much-anticipated North American premiere.

Faithfully based on the 1972 movie of the same name—its co-writer and director, the late Perry Henzell, also penned the musical—this stage version was first performed in 2006 by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and has since garnered rave reviews over a number of sell-out runs in the U.K. The Toronto production features much of the original’s vibrant, youthful cast, not to mention a live reggae band with a groove so energetic, it rouses audience members to dance in their seats. Among the British stars are Joanna Francis as the God-fearing Elsa, and Rolan Bell, who hits all the right notes as the show’s tragic hero, Ivanhoe Martin. A poor Jamaican farm boy with stars in his eyes and a dream in his heart, Ivan heads to Kingston with ambitions to become a reggae hit-maker. Soon enough he is faced with the harsh realities of the music industry and veers sharply down the path of drugs, crime and vengeance, earning infamy for his exploits as an outlaw just as his musical star begins to rise.

Henzell’s vision for his film was to create a temporal document of Jamaica in the 1970s, and to bring its unique culture to the world without glossing over the political corruption and devastating poverty on the island. Not only did The Harder They Come accomplish that goal, it also made an international star of Jimmy Cliff, who portrayed Ivanhoe on-screen and wrote many of the intoxicating tunes that soundtrack both the movie and the current theatrical production. “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Rivers of Babylon,” “You Can Get it if You Really Want”—these classic songs tell Ivan’s story as a sort of aural history, mixing melancholy with a sense of unshakeable pride and hopefulness. It is this tinge of optimism that underscores The Harder They Come; when rebellious Ivan meets his inevitable demise, it is neither bitter nor sweet, but disarmingly honest and raw. Through it all, he would rather die than give up on a dream.

Canon Theatre (244 Victoria St.), Tuesday to Saturday 8 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m., $25 to $95; call 416-872-1212 to purchase tickets.

Looking for more excitement near the Canon Theatre?

The Toronto Eaton Centre

Toronto Eaton Centre

SHOP The theatre’s central location means it’s close to many retail options. From Armani to Zara, the Toronto Eaton Centre brings together more than 230 top shops, plus services and restaurants. Attached to the Eaton Centre by a pedestrian bridge is the The Bay (page 64), a pre-eminent department store that began its life more than 300 years ago as the Hudson’s Bay Company—seek out fashion, technology and beauty products at this proud Canadian institution. Also nearby, a large Urban Outfitters proffers trendy apparel, accessories and home decor items.

EAT If the vivid renditions of Jimmy Cliff’s beloved songs arouse the need for more music and heat, head to the Hard Rock Café, where classic rock accompanies classic grub. Tucked just off of Yonge Street, Barberian’s Steakhouse offers a peppery New York striploin grilled just the way you want it. Louisiana-inspired Bâton Rouge has steaks, too, plus its signature barbecued pork back ribs and jumbo shrimp. After the show, indulge in island-flavoured treats like mini crab cakes and Caribbean martinis made with spiced rum and pineapple juice at Pantages Martini Bar and Lounge.

The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre

The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre

SEE Summer weather gets Yonge-Dundas Square (southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas streets) jiving: enjoy free outdoor film screenings every Tuesday plus an arts and crafts market on weekends throughout July. Theatre lovers will also want to visit the historic Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, which provides a behind-the-scenes  tour highlighting its original vaudeville-era architecture. Just a few blocks west, connect cloth and artistry at the Textile Museum of Canada. Its current exhibition, When Women Rule the World: Judy Chicago in Thread, explores feminist culture through textiles and fibres.

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