Theater review by Raven Snook
Harmony is a memory musical about a time we must never forget. A passion project by pop hitmaker Barry Manilow and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, this show has been decades in the making, from its 1997 premiere at California’s La Jolla Playhouse to its current New York iteration, mounted by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Its story—which juxtaposes the rise of the Third Reich with the decline of a real-life German singing sextet called the Comedian Harmonists—is certainly worth telling. But although Harmony is engaging and heartfelt, it peters off into historical hokum.
Musical mensch Chip Zien plays Rabbi, the last surviving member of the once-popular Weimar boy band, who narrates the proceedings by recalling the group's life and times. An exuberant and talented young cast acts out pivotal moments: the fateful audition that brought together six comedic crooners, some Jewish and some gentile, in 1927 Berlin; their breakthrough as Marlene Dietrich's boys in the background; the evolution of their signature mix of harmony and humor; their famous fans, their onstage triumphs, their offstage romances—Sierra Boggess shows off her glorious soprano as Rabbi's shiksa wife—and their ongoing worries about Germany's tumultuous politics.
Directed and whimsically choreographed by Broadway mainstay Warren Carlyle, the show’s first half is a tuneful whirlwind of lush and lovely melodies by Manilow (and workmanlike lyrics by Sussman). The second half is where things go off-key, falling into cliché—Nazis stormtrooping down the aisles, a barely-there love triangle—and melodrama. (Rabbi's 11-o'clock number, "Threnody," is especially overwrought.) Harmony also fudges some key facts: While the group’s Jewish members did flee the country, their colleagues weren't as collegial as the show suggests: They formed competing ensembles and became ensnared in a legal battle over the name.
Manilow and Sussman's paint-by-production-numbers approach is understandable: Many biomusicals use it, and audiences enjoy it well enough. But though it may be a crowd-pleaser, Harmony doesn’t make the most of the possibilities of its medium. The story of the Comedian Harmonists—which has also been told in a documentary, a German feature film and the short-lived Broadway revue Band in Berlin—deserves musical-theater storytelling as nuanced and compelling as the group’s polyphonic sound.
Harmony. National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Off Broadway). Music by Barry Manilow. Book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. Directed by Warren Carlyle. With Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess. Running time: 2hr 35mins. One intermission.