Review: In ‘Harmony,’ a Band’s Success Collides With History

For many people, especially those of a certain generation, the name Barry Manilow immediately summons innocuous marshmallow-soft rock. Regardless of whether you interpret that description as comforting or saccharine, it is not necessarily a style you would associate with a show about a Weimar-era vocal group split apart by the rise of Nazism.

And yet here is “Harmony: A New Musical,” a project Manilow and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman have been nursing for over 25 years. It opened on Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, a location bearing the weight of history that adds an extra layer of poignancy to an imperfect but very affecting show.

Those skeptical of the fact that the men behind “Copacabana” could tackle serious matters should perhaps listen closely to “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” or “Even Now,” just two examples of Manilow’s flair. Those 1970s songs are very much of their time yet also ageless, and they embrace dramatic storytelling seasoned with a touch of unabashed sentiment that some may dismiss as sentimental. They are the aural equivalent of 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk like “All That Heaven Allows,” and, as such, not so different from the best numbers in “Harmony,” which are crafted in a defiantly classic mold. Every time the production becomes a little wobbly, those songs steer it back to solid emotional ground.

The Broadway veteran Chip Zien acts as narrator but also pops up as a rabbi and in other minor roles.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, the show is essentially a biomusical — though not a jukebox — in which Manilow (music) and Sussman (book and lyrics) retrace the saga of the Comedian Harmonists, a sextet made up of Jews and gentiles andwhose popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s spread well beyond their Berlin base.

It is at Carnegie Hall in December 1933 that we first meet the band members, performing the lengthy title number, in which the singers emulate jazz instruments before whisking us back to the group’s formation in 1927.

This is when Harry Frommermann (Zal Owen), a supremely gifted arranger and orchestrator, not unlike Manilow himself, places a newspaper ad looking for singers. A crew as motley as it is talented answers the call, as if this were in an episode of “Making the (Boy) Band.” It includes Erwin Bootz (Blake Roman), nicknamed Chopin because of his virtuoso piano playing; the “chain-smoking Bulgarian tenor” Ari Leschnikoff (Steven Telsey), who goes by the nickname Lesh; the wealthy, monocle-wearing medical student Erich Collin (Eric Peters); and the rapscallion bass Bobby Biberti (a very funny Sean Bell, with Danny Kaye vibes).

Rounding out the ensemble is Roman Cycowski (Danny Kornfeld), nicknamed Rabbi because he had been studying in Poland to become one. Rabbi plays a key role, or rather two: His older self, portrayed by the Broadway veteran Chip Zien (the original Baker of “Into the Woods,” “Falsettos”), acts as narrator, both reflecting back on his band’s history and commenting on the various goings-on.

This extra Rabbi is new to the NYTF’s iteration of the musical — “Harmony” premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, then re-emerged in 2014 for runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles — and, at first, he does not feel entirely necessary, especially since Zien also pops up, in a somewhat distracting manner, in a few minor roles.

From left: Telsey, Bell, Roman, Kornfeld, Owen and Peters in the show, directed with a steady pace by Warren Carlyle.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

As we go on, though, Zien’s Rabbi comes into his melancholy own: He is, after all, the one character who knows where this is going, and Zien eventually leaves it all out on the stage in his heartbreaking last song. In case you were wondering what it feels like to cry under a mask, there is a good chance you will find out then.

But before getting to that point, “Harmony” barrels through a lot as it tries to capture the band members’ individual lives and their joint accomplishments: the Comedian Harmonists’ original lineup may have been together only for a relatively brief time, but they were a terrific act and their run was action-packed. (No wonder they have continued to fascinate over the decades, as the subject of a documentary, a book, a feature film, and numerous tributes, including the short-lived 1999 Broadway show“Band in Berlin.”)

The show is in good hands with the director and choreographer Warren Carlyle (“The Music Man,” “Hello, Dolly”). Not only does he maintain a steady pace but he somehow manages to fit ambitious numbers — including the pocket Ziegfeld extravaganza “We’re Goin’ Loco!” and the Kander and Ebbesque “Come to the Fatherland,” in which the Comedian Harmonists become human marionettes — on the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s small stage.

From left: Sierra Boggess, Kornfeld, Zien, Jessie Davidson and Roman in the musical.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Manilow, Sussman and Carlyle mostly succeed in balancing the shifting moods, which is no easy feat because they must shuffle broad humor and, well, Nazis. The “comedian” in the band’s name was to be taken literally, for example, and the singers were as famous for their stage antics and novelty songs as for their tight singing.

The downside is that there is a thin line between speedy and rushed, and the men are drawn in brushstrokes. A pair of love interests, Mary (Sierra Boggess) and Ruth (Jessie Davidson), are even less than that — one is loving, the other feisty, and that’s pretty much it.

At least those two women get the epic “Where You Go,” which has the heart-on-sleeve grandeur of the finest Michel Legrand ballads. Such “Harmony” songs as that one, “This Is Our Time” and “Every Single Day” create a sense of out-of-time inevitability, yet they also remain grounded in the story: It is impossible to forget why we are watching the show.

Through May 8 at the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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