When not writing songs that make the whole world sing over the past 40 years, to the tune of 80 million records sold, Barry Manilow has spent a lot of time developing a stage musical with longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman. The pair’s Harmony is a theatrical bio of the Comedian Harmonists, an international singing sensation in the late 1920’s-mid 1930’s. Harmony received an initial production at the La Jolla Playhouse back in the 1990’s and a second last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. Now, the re-tooled and seemingly Broadway-bound show is having a tryout run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through April 13th.
The musical’s subject is little known but compelling. The Comedian Harmonists were six young German men from diverse religious and class backgrounds, including a former rabbi, an operatically-trained bass, a medical student and a singing waiter. Recruited in 1927, prior to the Nazis’ rise to power, the troupe became known for their musical prowess as well as forays into comedy and dance. They were a near-instant hit in their homeland and eventually played packed houses throughout Europe and the United States. Upon their return to Germany, they were startled by the new Hitler regime’s oppression and criticized it during their performances. The Comedian Harmonists soon found their passports revoked and were ultimately prohibited from performing altogether.
Prior to Harmony’s opening night in LA, I was jokingly referring to it as “Cabaret Lite” and “Cabaret meets Copacabana,” the latter referencing another, poorly-received Manilow musical. I am happy to report the show did not meet my somewhat dubious expectations but is instead a serious, commendable effort in its own right. Musical-theatre fans may perceive likely-unintentional nods to Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story (primarily during a “Gee, Officer Krupke”-esque number titled “Your Son is Becoming a Singer”), The Sound of Music (marionettes!) and, yes, Cabaret. While several of the songs have an undeniable Manilow pop sound to them, especially the title number, others reveal the composer’s impressive attempt to stretch himself. Notable in this regard are “Lost in the Shadows” (featuring a hilariously dead-on Marlene Dietrich impersonation by Lauren Elaine Taylor), the satiric but biting “Come to the Fatherland” and the climactic, gut-wrenching “Threnody.” Manilow also created some lovely wedding music for one scene that could become a staple at real-life Jewish weddings.
At nearly three hours, including intermission, Harmony could use some tightening up by the writers and director Tony Speciale before it hits New York. I would start with the establishing, opening number that goes on far too long with at least three reprises of the title song. Some of the troupe’s extensive globe-trotting can be suggested rather than shown, and several scenes involving the musical’s chief, rather one-note female characters/love interests (although both are very well-played by Hannah Corneau and Leigh Ann Larkin) could benefit from a tighter focus that may also result in a more streamlined approach.
From a technical perspective, the show is beyond reproach. Tobin Ost’s sets, utilizing flying platforms along with video backdrops designed by Darrel Maloney, and vivid period costumes are frequently stunning. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography for the Comedian Harmonists is appropriately witty, and the lighting and sound designs are exemplary. Harmony’s current trump card, however, is the superb sextet portraying the Harmonists: Matt Bailey, Will Blum (who recently appeared on Broadway as The Book of Mormon’s goofy Elder Cunningham), Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor and Douglas Williams. Their vocal chemistry and physical comedy are superb, not to be outdone by the palpable respect they have for the men they are representing.
The opening night crowd was very receptive to Harmony, some critics might say excessively so. I think it bodes well for the show’s Broadway chances after just a little pruning or sharpening here and there. Already, Manilow considers it “the most rewarding creative experience of his career,” according to his program bio. At minimum, Harmony rises heads and shoulders above Copacabana: The Musical.
Reverend’s Rating: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.