By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
It’s taken 25 years for Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman to birth their baby, but Harmony: A New Musical, with direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle, is proof of the time-worn adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This time, the Off-Broadway production presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine (NYTF, with a host of other producers) and playing at the Edmon J. Safra Hall in the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Museum to the Holocaust, is proof no matter how long it took, they finally got it right.
The back story of Harmony concerns the Comedian Harmonists, the most popular close-harmony group on the European Continent in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Today, their popularity is largely unknown. That’s because several members of the six-man group of singers based in the Weimar Republic were Jewish. They fell out of favor with the rise of the Nazis on their home turf and, as a result, their recordings were destroyed and their many films burned by the authorities.
There is little today that survives that tragic period, but the creative team behind Harmony hopes to correct this historical oversight and bring back their story for all to appreciate.
For those who might be tempted to see the show in order to revel in songs like “Ready To Take a Chance Again,” “Could This Be the Magic?” or “Mandy,” forget it. This is not a show with quintessential Barry Manilow pop songs. although his pop essence does show up in some of the songs. Rather, it is a complicated, diverse and sweeping score of many different musical styles and tempos written by Manilow with superb lyrics by Sussman. The score is surprising in how truly seasoned it is, but after 25 years of workshops and treatments, it would be folly to think otherwise.
Warren Carlyle’s importance as a director cannot be overstated, because it was through his ingenuity and industry that the central character of the Rabbi, portrayed by Chip Zien, was created. The Rabbi is used as a theatrical device to look back in time and provide commentary from his own frame of reference. Zien, whose singing voice is poignantly expressive, is the glue that holds the story of the Comedian Harmonists together. Without the Rabbi, the audience would be forced to guess the importance of specific events. Having Zien’s character comment on them as they occur allows for a perspective that provides dramatic insights into the group’s motivation and thoughts. He is fantastic in this demanding role that would give pause to several of his younger cast mates.
Carlyle’s other important influence on the production is his superbly well-executed choreography. The actors portraying the Comedian Harmonists display amazing vocal prowess in their skillful use of six-part harmonies, but to execute them while fully engaged in intricate dance moves on what is an extremely small stage is nothing short of awe-inspiring. One cleverly choreographed novelty number – “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” – involves quick and intricate moves that elicit laughter as they engage in a literal cover-up of one another.
Act II’s opener “We’re Goin’ Loco!” is another inspired number: a fantasy sequence with an homage to Black libertine Josephine Baker (Ana Hoffman) and the six Harmonists portraying Ziegfeld Follies leading men. The wildly fanciful piece takes the audience on a wild ride until Zien, as the Rabbi, sets the record straight.
Occasionally, the Rabbi will join in song with the other members of the group as in Act I’s early numbers “Harmony” and “The Auditions.” Danny Kornfeld memorably plays the Young Rabbi and the other members of the group are Blake Roman (Chopin), Steven Telsey (Lesh), Zal Owen (Harry), Eric Peters (Erich) and Sean Bell (Bobby). Early on, it is established the group operates in unanimity, making decisions thoughtfully and with respect of each other’s wishes. This occasionally provides some tension in the group’s dynamic, particularly in Act II, as the rising tide of Nazi antisemitism becomes more challenging to them and difficult to ignore.
The Jewish identities of the Young Rabbi and Chopin are a major focus and so, too, are their love interests. Sierra Boggess plays Mary, the Young Rabbi’s Gentile lover. While clearly in love with the Young Rabbi, she finds it more and more problematic, as the Nazis begin to enact laws that declare their union as unlawful. Meanwhile, Chopin has fallen for Ruth (Jessie Davidson), a Jewish Communist whose religion and politics puts her squarely at odds with the Nazis.
As the Young Rabbi, Kornfeld expresses his love for Mary and counters her objections to their courtship with a hallmark Manilow ballad. In “Every Single Day,” he questions how they might regret not taking a chance years later:
Every single day
We’ll remember what we do today
Words we didn’t say,
We’ll remember every single day.
Then years go by to wonder why
And wonder what we learned.
Was that the bridge we should have crossed?
The one we burned?
Kornfeld’s exuberance and intensity makes this song a highlight of the show. The sweep of the song is simple, yet so powerful, the audience demands an ovation before the show can continue. There is no denying this is a Manilow tune worthy of consideration as a potential chart topper.
Act II’s “Where You Go,” an anthem sung by Boggess and Davidson as Mary and Ruth, gives contemplation on their difficult lives ahead. The setting is in a hotel room in Cologne in September of 1935 as the Nuremberg Race Laws are announced, the laws which deprived Jews of their basic rights as citizens, forbade mixed marriages and set the stage for the Holocaust that followed.
Where you go, I will go.
Where you walk, I’m beside you.
My love, where you are
Is where I want to be.
Where you go, we will go.
Maybe scared, but together.
With you, I’m prepared.
The rest is destiny.
The true test of any boy band from N’Sync to Boyz to Men to The Four Freshmen is its camaraderie and the pure joy in their singing. The title of the musical is an indication of not only how the Comedian Harmonists sounded, but also how they regarded each other during a time of discord. Sussman’s book makes it clear they were all committed to each other as performers and friends.
The material the Harmonists chose to perform was often tongue-in-cheek and didn’t always pass muster with the Nazis. In “Hungarian Rhapsody # 20,” they come up with a clever homage to the music of the Romani people, colloquially known as Gypsy music. The fact that Liszt only composed 19 “Hungarian Dances” is a minor consideration for them as they enthusiastically sing with passion about another frequent target of the Nazis.
Their insistence on performing what the Nazis later termed as “entertate musik” or “degenerate music” was a major factor in their being persecuted by the authorities. That two of the group’s members were avowed Jews could be ignored, according to the Obersturmfuhrer (Zak Edwards), but when they push back with the satirical “Come to the Fatherland” while performing in Copenhagen, the Nazis deal with them ruthlessly. (That term takes on added meaning later.)
What Carlyle has fashioned out of six relative newcomers is a solid group of singers and dancers who are quite believable in their musicality and roles. It is a joy to witness their exuberance as Sussman’s story unfolds and Manilow’s music carries them. The final number “Look To the Stars” suggests a defiance that will live on.
Look, look how they tease
These stars in the night.
The darker the night becomes
The brighter their light becomes.
Chill winds wail
The tempest brews
And clouds assail the sky
Through the veil
The stars refuse to die!
John O’Neil conducts a small, but talented ensemble who play the score at stage left. An orchestra pit would have enhanced this production, but it is a minor consideration. While several keyboards are employed to emulate other instruments, the brass, strings, reeds and percussion deliver Manilow’s music in mellifluous fashion.
Costumes, wigs, sound, lighting and scenic designs are all superb as one expects with NYTF productions. NYTF recently announced a week’s extension of Harmony. The show originally scheduled to close on May 8 will now continue through May 15.
The world premiere of Harmony: A New Musical continues at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in the Edmon J. Safra Auditorium. Produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine, Ken Davenport, Garry C. Kief, Amuse Inc., Susan Dubow, and Neil Gooding Productions, it is presented in association with Wilfried Rimensberger. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, it features the music of Barry Manilow with lyrics and book by Bruce Sussman. For tickets click here.
The Rabbi Chip Zien
Mary Sierra Boggess
Young Rabbi Danny Kornfeld
Chopin Blake Roman
Erich Eric Peters
Bobby Sean Bell
Harry Zal Owen
Lesh Steven Telsey
Ruth Jessie Davidson
Josephine Ana Hoffman
Music by Barry Manilow
Book & lyrics by Bruce Sussman
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt
Costume design by Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie
Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier
Video Design by batwin + robin productions
Wig & Hair Design by Tom Watson
Casting by Jamibeth Margolis
Production stage manager Nancy Pittelman
Assistant stage manager Amanda M. Stuart
Associate director/choreographer Sara Edwards
General manager Roy Gabay / Jumpstart Entertainment
Music director John O’Neill