By Sarah Downs
Harmony, the true story of a sextet that gained international success in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, only to be all but fully erased from the history books by Nazi oppression, could not be more timely. The toxic intersection of fascism and individual rights inevitably brings suppression of free thought, the banning of ideas and the persecution of humanity. Sound familiar?
The show has so much to offer — a diversely talented cast, great music, gorgeous orchestrations played by an actual (small but mighty) orchestra, excellent choreography and a real commitment to telling an important story. A new/old story. And on top it all there is lots of wonderful close harmony singing by six excellent musicians. Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey create individual, quirky characters, and as a group they charm effortlessly.
This is clearly a passion project for Manilow and Sussman, and for good reason. The subject matter is rich with potential. Regardless of some unevenness in the book, Harmony is delightful and deeply moving. Manilow’s music is classic musical theater, with lyrical melody and tight, complex harmony. HIs score could rival that of any other new musical on Broadway.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t match the level of the music. It’s too skeletal. Much of the action takes pace offstage, burdening Chip Zien as narrator with an enormous amount of exposition. The at times disjointed onstage moments are given equal weight, robbing the piece of a certain drive. With the laudable goal of making sure each Comedian Harmonist has his moment in the sun, the script strings out scenes that could benefit from layering. Condensing narrative and context would help tighten the show. For example, build the momentum of fear by exploiting its insidiousness and ubiquity. Not every instrument of bias is a man in a uniform.
Some scenes, like the film shoot, weave these story elements and visuals together to great effect. Amidst the controlled chaos of dancing girls in beautiful peach gowns, gaffers and cameramen bustling around, and the Harmonists singing around the piano, Chopin (Blake Roman) stands on a chair singing an intensely personal solo, his voice rich with emotion. The action suddenly comes to a halt as individual characters are singled out and ordered to leave because Jews are no longer permitted to work. As they line up downstage you can see the individual fear in their eyes. Now it’s real. Now it’s personal.
The musical numbers work wonders, including the extensive show opener which introduces us to the the Comedian Harmonists, in all their smooth singing glory. The narrative continues to open a window back in time, where we meet each Harmonist at his audition. Their subsequent debut as a group, with its nod to Busby Berkeley, is hysterical. The marionette song in Act II is terrific, hitting the sweet spot where bitter irony and humor meet. The splashy salsa number with Josephine Baker is great fun, too, but I do wish there were another big ensemble number to liven up the barren stage.
The show is beautifully sung. Blake Roman as Chopin and Jessie Davidson as his wife Ruth stand out in particular. Both have charismatic stage presence and impressive voices. Ruth’s duet with Sierra Boggess as Mary, the wife of the young Rabbi (an intense Danny Kornfeld), is very affecting, not least because it is one of only two duets. Boggess has a lovely stillness about her, and a beautiful soprano voice. Alas, these two characters are thinly drawn, appearing without context and remaining underdeveloped.
Chip Zien is wonderful as the Older Rabbi looking back at his younger self. His role both frames and directs the action. Zien has great comic timing and a deep soul, which he willingly shares with us. His final song is devastating. At the end, when Zien starts to play a Comedian Harmonists recording, for a fleeting moment I thought we would hear the voices of the actual Comedian Harmonists. Blending past and present would have been so satisfying – but that’s the thing. There is no satisfaction. There is only memory.
Watching a record play to the echo of the actors onstage cut me to the quick. Perhaps no recordings survived – perhaps they were truly silenced by the Nazis. Well, suck it Hitler, the Comedian Harmonists are silent no more.
Harmony, music by Barry Manilow, book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman; directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. With Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Jessie Davidson, Ana Hoffman, Kenny Morris, Elise Frances Daniells, Zak Edwards, Abby Goldfarb, Eddie Grey, Shayne Kennon, Kolby Kindle, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Andrew O’Shanick, Tori Palin, Barrett Riggins, Kayleen Seidl, Don Teixeira, Nancy Ticotin, Kate Wesler. Beowulf Borritt, scenic design; Linda Cho and Rucky Lurie, costumes; Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, lighting design; Dan Moses Schrier, sound design; batwin & robin productions, video design; Tom Watson, wig design.
Presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, New York, NY 10280
Harmony runs April 13th through May 8th. For tickets click HERE. Run time, approximately 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Note: Masks must be worn at all times.