Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 13, 2023
Harmony. Music and arrangements by Barry Manilow. Book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design Dan Moses Schreier. Media design by Batwin and Robin Productions. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Orchestrations by Doug Walter. Vocal arrangements by Barry Manilow and John O'Neill. Music director John O'Neill. Associate director/choreographer Sara Edwards. Music coordinator Michael Aarons.
Harmony, which opened tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, keeps its focus on the sextet from its start in 1927 to its forced disbandment in 1934. By any measure, the show, which saw its first production in San Diego in 1997 and comes to Broadway following a successful run last year at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, is the product of a deep commitment to the project by the creative team.
But do not enter (or avoid entering) the theater imagining you are walking into anything you've heard before from Manilow, the very successful singer/songwriter, now 80, who dominated the pop charts in the 1970s with such sincere and heartfelt numbers as "Mandy," "I Made It Through the Rain," and "Can't Smile Without You." Instead, this is the Barry Manilow who has written a score that proves Harmony to be the undertaking of a lifetime. Through it, he and the show's bookwriter, lyricist, and longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, have found a way to combine their love for music with a love and respect for their Jewish identity, and whose songs reflect both, telling the story while being careful to fit it all within the era in which it takes place.
Meet the members of the Comedian Harmonists: founder Harry (Zal Owen); Lesh (Steven Telsey), "a chain-smoking Bulgarian tenor with a high E above C"; Erich (Eric Peters), a medical student who wants to join because "I can't stand the sight of blood;" Erwin "Chopin" Bootz (Blake Roman) who will become the company's pianist; Bobby (Sean Bell), the group's bass singer; and, lastly, Josef ("Rabbi") Cyckowski, a former Rabbinical student from Poland, played as a young man by Danny Kornfeld and as his older self, doubling as the show's narrator, by Chip Zien, who also puts in appearances as Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein, and several others from time to time.
Harmony actually opens a few years after their first meeting. It is 1933, and the place is New York City's Carnegie Hall, where the Comedian Harmonists are making their U. S. debut. It's a great way for us to get a sense of their style and their popularity with the show's opening number. But we also learn much later that this visit to America marked a major turning point in their lives, a point at which naivete and wishful thinking take them down a sorrowfully wrong path.
It is a real treat to watch the six members of the group performing throughout the production, which has been directed and choreographed with style and grace by Warren Carlyle, who allows for very few tangential swings away from the story the creative team has set out to tell. There are straightforward performance numbers like the opening at Carnegie Hall; there are slightly naughty comic numbers like "How Can I Serve You, Madam;" and there is a cleverly biting satirical "Come to the Fatherland," performed in Copenhagen by the Comedian Harmonists after they learn they have been allowed to continue with their Jewish members only because the Nazi regime is using them as a propaganda tool.
Later, when members of the group are considering an escape from Germany before it is too late, Mary and Ruth have been given a gorgeous number called "Where You Go." In it, Mary recites the words of the Biblical Book of Ruth ("your people shall be my people"), while Ruth insists she must remain in Germany despite the threat in order to keep on fighting ("I feel sorry for you," she says to Chopin. "You think it ends here.")
Above all, it is the performance by Chip Zien that holds everything together. He is our narrator, our guide, and, most importantly, the keeper of the memory of everything, both of what he wants to remember and what he wants to forget. His anguish pours out in the devastating number, "Threnody," that is almost as painful to hear as it is for the elder character of Rabbi, long feeling safe in America, to share with us.
Harmony is an altogether original and serious work that beautifully marries the story of the Comedian Harmonists with that of the years of their rise and fall. It is filled with creative music and wonderful performances all around, a triumph of the long-held vision of Manilow and Sussman.