The musical Harmony, the lovechild of pop music greats Barry Manilow (music) and Bruce Sussman (lyrics and book), has opened at a time when anti-Semitism has peaked once again and lessons to the contrary are in short supply. Harmony’s dive into Nazi era anti-Semitism, though, may fall on deaf ears, but Harmony is also very much an entertainment, not a message show.
Certainly, Manilow and Sussman couldn’t have predicted the “perfect timing” of this staging, the last in a long line of productions, most recently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April 2022. The current iteration is basically that production with most of the cast intact and a classier, mirrored set by Beowulf Boritt.
Harmony is about a German singing group that was an international sensation during the dying days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialists. The Comedian Harmonists, famous for their close harmony and hijinks, toured all over the world to acclaim, including working with Josephine Baker (a personable, bubbly Allison Semmes) and appearances at Carnegie Hall, the event that opens the show.
A large front curtain, a copy of the poster for the Carnegie Hall appearance, greets the audience. When it falls decorously, Chip Zien, in a powerful, career topping performance, appears as the narrator. He is Rabbi, the older, 1988, incarnation of the Young Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld, solid and warm), one of the Harmonists.
Harry (Zal Owen), the musical genius of the group manages to round up five others, all fine singers: Bobby (Sean Bell), the bass and practical voice of the ensemble; Lesh (Steven Telsey), the Bulgarian; Chopin (Blake Roman), the bitter, sardonic one; Erich (Eric Peters), the rich one with a secret; and, Rabbi.
Slowly they develop their repertoire and a reputation, finding themselves, at their big break in a posh nightclub, but embarrassingly, without their costumes. In Sussman’s book, this is where they discovered their comic personas (“How Can I Serve You, Madame”), performing sans pants using serving trays to feign modesty.
Two women enter the picture: Mary (a warm, beautiful-voiced Sierra Boggess), a gentile who marries the Jewish Rabbi and the leftist firebrand Ruth (Julie Benko, brilliantly harsh, but sympathetic), a Jew who marries the gentile Chopin. These marriages pinpoint how the rise of the Nazis personally affected the group, half of whom were Jewish.
Their seemingly smooth rise to renown is tempered first by hints of the march of political change, soon to become an onslaught. Swastikas appear then disappear. Nazi functionaries stride down the aisle, chilling the happiness of the group. Soon their recordings are confiscated and destroyed.
The Nazi tsunami steers the story away from getting to know the Harmonist members as people. From their opening song, “Harmony,” the scenario focuses on the group as a whole. We do get some deeper emotional outpourings via the two wives.
Mary has the moving “And What Do You See?” when she has doubts about her relationship with Rabbi. His “Every Single Day” is his emotional response. Late in the show, when their fates are unavoidable, Ruth and Mary sing “Where You Go,” a touching portrait of emotional turmoil.
Erich has the funny song “Your Son is Becoming a Singer,” a sweet response to switching careers from medicine to show biz. Bobby sings the fateful “Home” to persuade the others to return to an increasingly iffy Germany.
“We’re Goin’ Loco” is the Latin-infused number that combined the Harmonists with Josephine Baker (and the closest the songwriters come to “At the Copa,” Manilow’s ubiquitous upbeat anthem). The group’s musical dexterity is displayed in the incredible “Hungarian Rhapsody #20.”
Rabbi gets an 11 o’clock number, “Threnody,” in which Zien turns himself inside out in a heartbreaking catharsis.
Theater veteran Warren Carlyle directs Harmony with an eye on pacing and squeezing the pathos for all it is worth. His jaunty choreography, virtually
all of it part of the group’s act, peaks with a delightfully sardonic “Come to the Fatherland,” in which the six singers, dressed in red lederhosen (fine, colorful, period perfect costumes by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie) become marionettes. Carlyle’s staging of “We’re Goin’ Loco” is exuberant and as close to sensuality as this show displays.
The songs are surprisingly un-Manilow. He clearly has a love for musical theater.
The brilliant, mood-enhancing lighting is designed by the estimable Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Harmony successfully melds comedy & drama and history & entertainment. Was the long gestation period warranted? Yes.
Harmony (open run)
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.harmonyanewmusical.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission