By: Isa Goldberg
November 14, 2023: How beautifully Barry Manilow’s new musical stumbles into our hearts. More of a revue, than a Broadway spectacle, Harmony is a docudrama, of sorts, about a popular German cabaret act, the Comedian Harmonists, which rose to international fame, in the early 1930’s, during the Depression.
Timely as it is, this new show opens early in a Broadway season, that will include the arrival of London’s Cabaret, opening in spring 2024. But Manilow brings his own musical style to the German music hall as Kurt Weill conceived it, and as Kander and Ebb drew on it.
In Harmony, the sound of a German oompah band, echoing the bright energy of songs like “Copacabana,” is prominent. Being such an awesome harmonist, Manilow imbues the songs with enormous spirit. As we know, he can make “the whole world sing.”
Still, it’s his sentimental pop style that makes their music feel contemporary.
The book and lyrics, are by longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman. And the story is built around six young musicians – a rabbi, a medical student, a whore house pianist, among the others. Fortunately, they’re all geniuses at putting on this show, which is framed as a memoir by the now aged rabbi, looking back on his life and career.
In that role, Chip Zien, is a genie to Broadway audiences. Having appeared in so many Broadway premieres, and Off Broadway productions, he is a marvelous maestro for the occasion. Conducting this story about a world of horror thoughtfully, and with comic finesse, is a role he genuinely fulfills.
A constant presence, he pipes in with wisecracks, and often wisdom. Entering into the action like a perp in Chopin’s romantic scene, or crying out in song on a threatening train ride, he holds the action together.
Forming a powerful ensemble, Sean Bell plays the most unsuspecting of Germans, and later the most shattered; Zal Owen portrays the righteous Harry, and one of the three Jews in the troupe. A tortured Chopin, played by Blake Roman, along with Eric Peters (Erich), Steven Telsey (Lesh), and Danny Kornfield (Young Rabbi) make this an outstanding ensemble.
While there are only two women in the musical, they’re at the center of the story. Ruth (Julie Benko), Chopin’s wife, is especially symbolic – as her name suggests. Arriving in red Bolshevik overcoat, and announcing that she’s a Jew – she appears quite the oddity. His quest to find her after she is arrested effects the troupe’s return to Germany, and imparts to the audience, the sense of unreality that rules their lives.
Like Chopin who was not Jewish, the Young Rabbi also marries a woman outside of his religion. As portrayed by Sierra Boggess, his wife, Mary, sings like an angel.
Soon in Act One, the two couples have a double wedding, only to be crashed by Nazi thugs. Chronologically, the rise of the Harmonist’s fame parallels the fall of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of the Third Reich.
As the character Albert Einstein (Chip Zien) imparts to a disbelieving Bobby, convinced Germany could never become a dictatorship, “throughout the course of history, the failure of democracies has set the stage for the success of tyrants. Greed and hatred are a proven formula for success.”
Sadly, the new government, which condoned the entertainers at first, eventually usurped their lives, making them instruments of their propaganda campaign. Granted international touring rights, to show the world Germany’s great cultural riches, they climb in popularity.
Indeed, the Harmonists achieved a sardonic style of performance that expressed the torture inflicted by the Nazis.
But even though the production implodes with the rush of history, the show starts out quietly, and moves at a comfortable pace, not necessarily an urgent one. Premiering at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage this past season, the musical had an intimate setting, – one that invites reflection. You can’t quite achieve that in a Broadway house, which does not lend itself to the music hall feeling of the show. Here at The Ethel Barrymore, the production feels a little small, and lacking in immediacy.
Warren Carlyle’s direction is grounded in telling the truth earnestly, and his choreography while minimal, sparkles when it must. In recreating their performances at music halls – big and small, Carlyle gives the audience a number of visually splashy scenes, that explode the irony of wartime. As is their wont, Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, who design the lights for all kinds of entertainment, take us from dingy rehearsal study, to Carnegie Hall.
Costumes by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie are historically accurate, and catchy to the contemporary eye. But the success of the show falls on the portrayal of this charming musical family. Unlike The Sound of Music, there’s no Captain Van Trapp to save them from the Nazis. These guys are heroes because they’re sports, like The Harlem Globetrotters – creating different kinds of fun acts that challenge the establishment.
Ethyl Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street in NYC
Photography: Julietta Cervantes