‘Harmony’ review: Barry Manilow Musical has pop prowess
Since 1997, singer-songwriter Barry Manilow and lyricist-librettist Bruce Sussman – the team behind iconic ’70s pop classics such as “Copacabana” – have sought to bring their wise and witty “Harmony” to life. : The Musical” on Broadway. Following its world premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, the duo took their flashy historical narrative to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles before landing for their current tour at the intimate Museum of Jewish Heritage in midtown Manhattan.
It’s a fitting place for the show, a true story of “the three Jews and three Gentiles” behind The Comedian Harmonists. This tight pre-Nazi singing and burlesque act—a “hotter than horseradish” ensemble—was so popular in Germany (crowded concerts, hit singles, movies), and then worldwide, that “Harmony” does not begin at home, but at the height of his powers on December 16, 1933, at Carnegie Hall in New York.
It was a night to remember: a sold-out show overseas, a telegram from NBC Radio asking to meet for a potential long-term program deal, a budding artistic relationship with Josephine Baker. That same New York night, however, also marked the beginning of the end in the memories of the band member known as “Rabbi” (Chip Zien) – the last man standing (and singing) of the Comedian Harmonists, recounting the sextet’s story.
He attributes youthful naivety to the band’s demise. The Comedian Harmonists chose to return to Germany rather than stay in New York, with the ensemble members – a Bulgarian, several non-Jewish Germans (one of whom married a Jewish woman) and three young Jewish men – all thinking that the appearance of Aryan Nationalism was all talk and would explode like every other cockamamie hate based organization in Europe at that time.
But as the Third Reich spread anti-Semitic fear, it quickly banned the sextet from singing pieces by Jewish composers, then burned their existing films and recordings, and finally banned the group from performing in public until its Jewish members be summarily dismissed.
Sussman and Manilow’s score for the show lends a contemporary twist to the joy, brotherhood, disappointment, disillusion and guilt experienced by The Comedian Harmonists – two tenors, a tenor buffo, a bass singer, a pianist and the baritone “Rabbi” (represented in his adotage by Zien and as a young singer by Danny Kornfeld) – and the women who loved them.
In particular, Manilow’s memorable melodies are both deftly married to the schlager-showtune-cabaret vibe of his era while still sounding as fresh as yesterday. Whether through the Harmonists’ song-driven routines (as in the title track and fantastically staged full band “How Could I Serve You, Madame?”) or with mournful wives’ talk (Sierra Boggess and Jessie Davidson’s “Where You Go?) or through the sharp and poignant numbers sung by Young Rabbi and Rabbi (“Every Single Day” and “Threnody”), Manilow’s pop prowess is everywhere.
Sussman, meanwhile, delivers a crackling, cracking script. If the true story, embellished and dramatized by several composite characters, touches on Yiddish humorous ideals specific to the time of the Harmonists (the jokes about the sons of cantors finally having the opportunity to sing in major keys caused a lot of laughter), there is also a vibrant, frenzied feel for current language in Sussman’s texts. Dictators never change, even when their rants change – or, in Sussman’s words, “it’s the same hate, just different uniforms.”
Each element of “Harmony” interlocks like a beautiful puzzle. A creative team of theater veterans, including director-choreographer Warren Carlyle and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, navigate the Museum’s small space with dynamism and dexterity. Using rear wall mirrors and video footage to expand the scope of the stage, “Harmony” looks like a megawatt Broadway musical, but in Battery Park.
The same less-is-more approach can be heard in musical director John O’Neill’s opulent klezmer-meets-Tin Pan Alley orchestrations for his small band. When the Rabbi looks back on the heart-pounding action aboard an overnight train to Munich when a young rabbi finds himself in a chance encounter with Hitler, the elder’s lifelong frustration and guilt and inactivity deer in the headlights of younger people are exacerbated to become haunting. , then a raging effect through the melodic and grandiose arrangement of Manilow and O’Neill for “Threnody”.
Each of the interpreters embodying the Comedian Harmonists – Kornfeld, Sean Bell, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey – looks and sounds the part while remaining contemporary. The individual quirks, humor and stubbornness of their characters shine through as delightfully as their musical talents in tandem for interwoven and tight harmony.
The two women at the heart of “Harmony” display similar levels of passion, but for different reasons. As someone dedicated to genuine protest against an incoming Nazi regime, Ruth (Davidson) directs the same rage at her husband’s cowardice in standing up to the Reich. The young rabbi’s wife, Mary (Boggess), is no less passionate or political, but saves her slow anger in the name of self-preservation. The performers and their characters inspire genuine warmth.
The powerful actor at the center of the show, Zien, aptly portrays the duality of a rabbi wracked with guilt over his inactions, but also filled with a sweet, fun nostalgia for the upbeat music and comedy he and his five collaborators brought to the world. Plus, Zien manages to play Albert Einstein, Robert Strauss, and a pre-fame Marlene Dietrich (top hat, tights, growling Germanic vocals and all). It’s a study in athletics and theatrical magic.
And this is the greatest thrill of this “Harmony”. Along with arriving at a collective sense of family by the end of the show, this history lesson also demonstrates the power to make humanity sing, even in our darkest hours.