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With much fanfare, “Harmony,” the new musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman has opened at the Ahmanson Theater. A long-held dream by its creators, it offers up charm and history, pathos and laughter, and a lesson we should have all been aware of, about a group of men who broke barriers just before that became impossible. And it works, with one moderately irritating exception.
The story is incredible and, allowing for a bit of artistic license, true. It concerns the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six close-harmony singers who took Germany, then Europe, and then the US by storm in the 1920s and 30s. The composition of the group was eclectic in many ways, including the fact it had both Jewish (including a former rabbi) and non-Jewish members. Their style was a combination of the close-harmony jazz which grew out of barbershop, the like of which one hears in early film recordings, combined with the silliness of the Marx Brothers. Their art was amazing, including their political satire, and they were as wildly popular in their day as the Beatles were in their own.
Then the Nazis rose to power, and even their popularity could not save them from the consequences.
Sussman’s book handles the necessarily episodic tale with enough flow to make it seem like one story instead of a series of vignettes. Even as you pop from place to place and time to time, you get to care a good deal about the six men and the women who loved them. Director Tony Speciale has gathered a cast of fine comedic and musical talent, and the result is a treat to watch. It’s a visual treat too, as Darrel Maloney’s projections onto Tobin Ost’s angular period-evocative sets and costumes pull you into place and time.
Matt Bailey is unemployed actor Harry Frommerman, the group’s optimistic and energetic founder, who placed an ad in the paper inviting others to join his group. Will Taylor is “Chopin” Bootz, his co-founder and the group’s talented pianist, whose love for a Jewish radical gets him into trouble at the end. Will Blum has a particularly silly time creating Bulgarian singing waiter Ari Leshnikoff, while Chris Dwan gives voice to Erich Collin, the medical student disappointing his upper crust Jewish family by going on the stage. Douglas Williams oozes profundity as operatic bass Bobby Biberti, and Shayne Kennon pretty much owns the stage as Josef Cykowsky, the Polish former rabbi whose story centers the tale. All these men sing, ham it up and connect with each other with a special kind of energy which makes the show work.
Indeed, the whole enterprise is a visual treat. Manilow’s music includes perhaps one or two too many angsty show-stoppers, but they are done very well, and the richly evocative “Where You Go”, sung by Leigh Ann Larkin as Cykowsky’s supportive, converted German wife and Hannah Corneau as Bootz’s more angry one, is a highlight worth seeing the show for. As for the performance pieces the Harmonists sing as a group, it is there that trouble follows. They sing them with great art, and sometimes great intentional silliness, but the style they are given is not quite the style that made the Comedian Harmonists famous.
In a recent interview, Manilow said he needed to adjust the kind of music they were singing, as the original seemed too close to the music behind Mickey Mouse cartoons. And therein lies the rub. One cannot escape the fact that the kind of music early animated films used was recordings of the popular song styles of the day – a sound similar to the Harmonists. To dismiss that sound is to dismiss what The Comedian Harmonists actually were (go listen on YouTube). Instead, in “Harmony” they sound at times like artificially antiquated Manilow. That’s not a bad sound, but it is not the Harmonists’ sound.
Still, and despite this distracting element, the story remains compelling. The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is goofy and creative, and the harmony on stage and in song that these characters achieve is impressive. In an era when the memory of that generation is fading, and the witnesses are mostly gone, it is also a uniquely personal look at what the Nazis did to German art and culture. Imagine what would have been, if the creative heart of that generation had not been declared degenerate. As a side note, today in Germany the Comedian Harmonists’ records and films are considered treasures. Time tells.
What: “Harmony” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles, at the Music Center How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org