Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Review of "Harmony"


The new musical Harmony, with a score by Barry Manilow and Barry Susssman, is the true life story of the Comedian Harmonists, one of the top vocal groups in pre-WWII Germany.  The six-men troupe recorded numerous best-selling albums, starred in motion pictures, and had engagements at the most exclusive nightclubs.  They were huge draws throughout the world, which included a concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and a stint in a Ziegfeld Follies production.  They were also a group comprised of three Jewish members, which ended up not only threatening their entertainment pursuits, but their very lives.


Harmony traces the formation of the Comedian Harmonists, through their international triumphs, and their eventual dissolution due to the Anti-Semetic fervor and propaganda of The Third Reich.  The six young men portraying the singing group are poised, polished, boisterous, ebullient and very well in sync.  By the end of Act I, they have become a family - disagreeing, arguing, and celebrating, always together.  Their different personalities mesh so well.  If the show doesn’t continue after its limited run at the National Yiddush Theatre (now through May 15), the sextet could consider touring on their own.  They’re that good.  The performers are Blake Roman (Chopin), Steven Telsey (Lesh), Matthew Mucha (Harry), Danny Kornfield (Young Rabbi), Eric Peters (Erich), and Sean Bell (Bobby).


Librettist Barry Sussman weaves the story together, mostly through the narration of a much older “Young Rabbi,” played with vigor, poignancy, and angst by Broadway stalwart Chip Zien.  At times, the actor is having the time of his life on stage - during one scene he prances around a seedy cabaret as Marlene Dietrich, fishnet stockings and all.  At other moments, the audience can feel his innermost pain and suffering as he wails in torment and anguish. It is a tour de force performance.


The two other central characters are Sierra Boggess as Mary, the devoted and indomitable wife of Young Rabbi; and Jessie Davidson as Ruth, activist for social change and wife of Chopin.  Both actresses bring an intrepid spirit to their roles, helping to humanize the story.


The score by long-time pop artist Barry Manilow (music) and Barry Sussman (lyrics) is unlike their normal fare of power ballads, feel good songs and upbeat pop tunes.  The duo have crafted songs that strongly portray the exuberance of the vocal group in all their iterations.  There are more subtle moments in the score that bring out the group’s devotion to their craft and each other as well as songs that suitably and impassionately address the ominous signs of the soon-to-be-changed world. 


As Director and Choreographer, Warren Carlyle brings a fluidity to the musical as it moves from performance numbers to non-musical scenes and back.  With minimal sets and props, he nimbly creates settings that are full of power and emotion.  There are just the right amounts of flourishes and embellishments that he brings to this story, which never overpowers the focus on the six men and the women in their lives.  The Director skillfully and judiciously inserts the narration by Rabbi (Chip Zien) into the production, which adds a touch of comic relief as well as augmenting the alarm and dread of the story.  Mr. Carlye succeeds in bringing real empathy to the work and genuinely portrays the injustices and horrors of Nazi Germany.


Scenic Designer Bewoulf Boritt, working within the limitations of the theater’s performance space, nonetheless, has adeptly and efficiently created a number of well-suited locales.  Costume Designers Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie have beautifully crafted outfits that run the gamut from everyday wear to well-appointed evening wear attire.


Musical Director John O’Neill nimbly leads a small, but highly proficient pit band that seamlessly moves from uptempo nightclub numbers to stylized set pieces to more somber fare.


Harmony, rightfully honored with eight Outer Critic Circle Award nominations.  One of the best new musicals - Off or On Broadway.  Playing through May 15, 2022.