‘Harmony’ review: Barry Manilow Musical has pop skills

Since 1997, composer-singer Barry Manilow and lyricist-librettist Bruce Sussman – the team behind iconic 70s pop classics like “Copacabana” – have been looking to get their clever and witty “Harmony: The Musical” to Broadway. After the world premiere of San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, the couple brought their flashy historical narrative to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles before landing for their current run at downtown Manhattan’s intimate Museum of Jewish Heritage.

It’s a fitting spot for the show, a true story of “the three Jews and three Gentiles” behind The Comedian Harmonists. This close-knit pre-Nazi-era song-and-slapstick act – an ensemble “hotter than horseradish” – was so popular in Germany (packed concerts, hit singles, movies) back then around the world that “Harmony” doesn’t start at . at home, but at the height of his powers on December 16, 1933, at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

It was an evening to remember: a sold-out show across the ocean, a telegram from NBC Radio asking to meet for a potential long-term program contract, a budding artistic relationship with Josephine Baker. That same New York night, however, was also the beginning of the end in the memories of the group member known as “Rabbi” (Chip Zien) – the last man-standing (and singing) by Comedian Harmonists to tell the story of the sextet.

He blames youthful naivety for the group’s death. The Comedian Harmonists chose to return to Germany instead of staying in New York, with members of the ensemble – a Bulgarian, several non-Jewish Germans (one of whom married a Jewish woman) and three young Jewish men – all counting on, that the start of Aryan Nationalism was all talk and would blow up like any other cockamamie hate-based organization in Europe at the time.

But as the Third Reich spread anti-Semitic fears, it soon banned the sextet from singing pieces by Jewish composers, then burned their existing films and recordings, and eventually banned the group from performing in public until its Jewish members were fired.

Sussman and Manilow’s score for the show adds a modern flair to the joy, brotherhood, disappointment, disillusionment and guilt that The Comedian Harmonists experience – two tenors, a tenor buffet, a bass singer, a pianist and the baritone “Rabbi” (portrayed in his dotage of Zien and as a young singer by Danny Kornfeld) – and the women who loved them.

Manilow’s memorable tunes in particular are both smartly married to the schlager-showtune cabaret vibe of their time, while still sounding just as fresh as yesterday. Whether it’s through the Harmonists’ song-driven routines (as in the title track and a fantastically staged, full-group “How Could I Serve You, Madame?”) Or with a mournful conversation between wives (Sierra Boggess and Jessie Davidson’s “Where You” Go? ) or through the pointed, gripping numbers sung by Young Rabbi and Rabbi (“Every Single Day” and “Threnody”), Manilow’s pop skills are always present.

Sussman, meanwhile, delivers a crackling, crackling script. While the true story, adorned and dramatized with several complex characters, touches on humorous Yiddish ideals specific to the time of the harmonists (jokes that the cantor sons were finally given the opportunity to sing in major, got big laughs), there is also a lively, frenetic sense of contemporary language in Sussman’s texts. Dictators never change, even when their quarrels do – or to put it in Sussman’s words, “It’s the same hatred, just different uniforms.”

Each element of “Harmony” clicks into place like a beautiful puzzle. A creative team of theater veterans, including director-choreographer Warren Carlyle and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, navigate the museum’s small space with dynamism and dexterity. Using rear-view mirrors and video images to expand the scope of the scene, “Harmony” feels like a megawatt Broadway musical, but in Battery Park.

The same less-is-more approach can be heard in music director John O’Neill’s lavish klezmer-meets-Tin Pan Alley orchestrations for his small band. As rabbis look back on the thrilling action aboard a night train to Munich, as a young rabbi ends up in a random encounter with Hitler, the elder’s frustration and lifelong guilt and the younger’s inactivity with deer-in-headlights increase to haunt, then furious effect through Manilow and O’Neill’s tense melodic and magnificent arrangement for “Threnody”.

Each of the performers who embody the comic harmonizers – Kornfeld, Sean Bell, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey – see and sound the role while still appearing modern. Their characters’ individual quirks, humor, and stubbornness prove just as delicious as their in-tandem musical talents of intertwined, close harmony.

The two women at the heart of “Harmony” show similar levels of passion, but for different reasons. As a dedicated to genuine protest against an impending Nazi regime, Ruth (Davidson) directs the same rage at her husband’s cowardice by standing up against the kingdom. The young rabbi’s wife, Mary (Boggess), is no less passionate or political, but saves her slowly burning anger for the sake of self-preservation. Both artists and their characters inspire real warmth.

The powerful actor at the center of the show, Zien, aptly portrays the duality of a rabbi plagued by guilt for his passivities, but also filled with a gentle, funny nostalgia for the happy music and comedy he and his five collaborators brought to the world . In addition, Zien manages to play Albert Einstein, Robert Strauss and a pre-famous Marlene Dietrich (high hat, tights, growing Germanic vocals and all). It is a study in athletics and theater magic.

And that’s the biggest thrill of this “Harmony”. Along with achieving a collective sense of family at the end of the show, this history lesson also demonstrates the power of getting humanity to sing, even in our darkest hours.

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