Harmony, the new show with music by Barry Manilow and lyrics/book by Bruce Sussman, is based on the German singing group The Comedian Harmonists, one of the most popular musical ensembles in the world during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The soaring fame of the six-person group, comprised of three Jewish and three non-Jewish members, coincided with the rise of Nazism which, eventually, led to the end of their storied career.
The musical, which was first presented two years ago at the National Yiddish Theatre down by the Battery, is an emotional roller coaster, with Bruce Sussman’s streamlined book emphasizing the highs and lows of the group. Even though the finale – including a moving, angst-filled monologue by the superb Chip Zien – will bring a tear to the eye, Harmony is also filled with joy and wondrous singing by the cast. The performances by the six-man Harmonists is a joy to hear as they beautifully blend their voices into aural magic. Dan Moses Schreir’s Sound Design is an auditory gem, which greatly enhances the production.
The story follows the six young men as they form their group and move from dive establishments to star billing at the fanciest nightclubs. Sussman provides enough of a back story of each member to present a wholly-defined character. Along the way, two Harmonists marry and they begin to travel the world, including a sold-out engagement at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The plot turns from upbeat and hopeful to chilling at the end of Act I as the rise of Nazism begins to take hold in Germany. In Act II, while still performing and traveling – the Third Reich felt their performances were good for their image – they were eventually reined in due, primarily, because of the Jewish members of the group. In the end, the Harmonists were disbanded, never to see each other again.
To hold the show together and push the action forward, Sussman has structured the musical with an aged narrator – Chip Zien as Rabbi, a member of the Comedian Harmonists in his younger days (Danny Kornfeld plays Young Rabbi in the production). Zien, a musical theater veteran, pops up to add texture to the story and play a number of characters, including Albert Einstein. He is the moral compass that gives expression to inner thoughts and outrage from years before. The actor, a spry 76 year-old, is a natural storyteller. He is at times funny, moving and passionate as he delivers a tour de force performance.
The six members that comprise the Harmonists are equally distinguished. The group – Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey- have been together for a number of years and this comfortability and ease together show in their on-stage interactions and playfulness. Five of the young men are making their Broadway debut (Zal Owen appeared in the Broadway production of The Band’s Visit), but you wouldn’t be able to tell from their laudable performances.
Harmony is also blessed to have the actresses Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko in the cast. Boggess, who has appeared in a number of Broadway shows, brings a vitality and confidence to her role of Mary, the wife of Young Rabbi. Benko who, during the absences of Lea Michel in the recent revival of Funny Girl, wowed audiences, is dynamic and assured in her role of Ruth, a firebrand seeking change to an unjust system. Her character is not as well-defined as the other cast members but, nonetheless, she makes the most of her portrayal while onstage.
The score by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman can be affecting, upbeat, frisky and, for the most part, very tuneful. There are few original musicals on Broadway today where I would say this. Manilow has co-written purely theatrical songs that will also be very satisfying to his legion of fans. Standout numbers include the upbeat title song, the rousing “Every Single Day;” the stirring “Stars in the Night;” the excitement of “This is Our Time;” and the haunting ballad “Where You Go,” sung by Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko.
Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle has tightened the show since it’s New York premiere. The pacing and scene changes are smooth and efficient helped by Beowulf Boritt’s minimal, but effective, Scenic Design. Carlyle is equally adept at staging intimate moments as he is with high-powered routines. He skillfully inserts dance numbers into the show, both stylish routines for the Harmonists and outright confections as with the “We’re Goin’ Loco!” number for the scene at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934.
While Harmony is a triumph, it should be noted that the anti-semitic and right-wing political rhetoric that underlines the musical, is as present today as it was during the timeframe of the show – almost 100 years ago. It is a distressing commentary of where we are as a society and should serve as a warning on complacency and ignorance.
Harmony, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a show not to be missed.