By Tulis McCall
Barry Maniow has groupies. And if you give them a New York Minute they will tell you all about the journey of “Harmony” . They will tell you that the show was originally produced in 1997 in LaJolla. That he played the songs from the musicals in his Vegas shows – singing all the parts. That the Phildelphia production went off the tracks when some unscrupulous person stole something-or-other and had to be sued to make the situation right again. That this show was downtown at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2022, AND Barry has been with it every step of the way. They call him Barry. Because he is their friend and that is all there is to it.
They will also tell you that everything in the story is true. Barry interviewed the one remaining Singer Cycowski a few years ago before Cycowski’s death in 1988. And let’s not forget the documentary that got this whole shebang going back in 1977.
This sprawling story takes place between 1929 when five of the men answered and ad for singers and 1935 when they nearly crossed paths with Hitler. Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld), Harry (Zal Owen), Chopin (Blake Roman), Erich (Eric Peters), Bobby (Sean Bell) and Lesh (Steven Telsey). [They are singing the story of the real Comedian Harmonists : Ari Leshnikoff, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Robert Biberti, Harry Frommerman, and Cantor Josef Roman Cykowski only one of which lived to tell the tale.]
A pause here to praise these six actors. They are astonishing in their talent, their enthusiasm and their commitment to every moment they are on stage. They dance, sing, become puppets, fall in love and eventually run for their lives withou a hiccup. They deserve a Tony all their own.
The elder Rabbi is our narrator (Chip Zien) who’s mission is to tell the tale of these forgotten men. The men’s job is to sing it, and sing it they do. When I was coming up we had music education in grammar school and high school. If you couldn’t sing at least you could show up and mumble along, perhaps mimicking the person next to you. For me acapella vocals are Heavenly, and these men did not disappoint. Nor did the two woman who played the wives Ruth (Julie Benko) a Jew married to Chopin a Gentile and Mary (Sierra Bogess) a Gentile married to a Rabbi, a Jew.
This is a story of defeat snatched out of the jaws of victory. These men were singers. Period. They had no thought to politics or religion until both came slamming down the path on a collision course. They were forced to separate so that they could live. All of them survived except for Ruth. Not happily we gather. And they were not in touch. There was 6,000 miles and an Iron Curtain separating them. One wonders what might have happened if they had had the Internet.
If the groupies have their say this show will succeed. It is a noble effort, of that there is no doubt. The journey to get here has been crazy enough to be its own musical. Lightbulb here please.
If you see the show you will not forget these six singers whose careers were cut short by an invented war (I guess they all are…). For me, however, I came away with little else. There was little specificity in its construct. The dates. politics and musical numbers began to blend into one soufflé of longing and pathos. There was no one character who stood out enough to keep the story rolling – hence the introduction of a narrator. This show becomes the Elder Rabbi’s story because he is the one telling it, because he is the one who is left to tell the tale. Which makes the overall story one incident after another rather than a tale with a beginning, middle and end.
What is also chilling is watching the creeping fascist temperament begin to infect these character’s world. In the recent weeks we have heard one political candidate use language reminiscent of Hitler, so as we leave the theatre we are not leaving that threat to history. This is not a musical that will let you escape for a couple of hours the way that Manilow’s stock-in-trade does. What a brave departure. The groupies may come to support him, but they will not leave without being challenged to look around them – at least I hope that is the case.
HARMONY – music by winner Barry Manilow, lyrics and book by Bruce Sussman, directed and choreographed Warren Carlyle.
WITH Chip Zien; Sierra Boggess; Julie Benko; the Comedian Harmonists Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey; Allison Semmes and Andrew O’Shanick. They join Zak Edwards, Dan Hoy, Bruce Landry, Rhonni Rose Mantilla, Daniel Z. Miller, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Constantine Pappas, Kayleen Seidl, Kyla Stone, Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Wesler, Stuart Zagnit, and Lee Zarrett.
Beowulf Boritt (scenic design), Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie (costume design), Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting design), Dan Moses Schreier (sound design), batwin + robin productions (media design), Tom Watson (hair & wig design), John O’Neill (music director/co-vocal arranger)
Tickets on Sale now through September 1, 2024