'Harmony' review — narrative dissonance in Barry Manilow-composed musical
Read our review of Harmony on Broadway, a new musical written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
The first 20 minutes of Barry Manilow’s musical Harmony are, quite frankly, uncomfortable. The music is disjointed and a narrating Rabbi (Chip Zien) tells corny jokes that audiences members are meant to fill in for him. As the Comedian Harmonists, a ragtag group of male singers in Weimar Germany, gradually find their footing, so does the show: The songs grow more polished, the choreography by director Warren Carlyle more precise, the performances more distinguishable. For a show that debuted over 25 years ago, however, how have subsequent productions, including last year’s Off-Broadway run with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, not addressed such structural issues?
Perhaps the most overt issue is the role of Zien’s Rabbi, an aging Yosef Cycowski (whose younger self is played by the charming Danny Kornfeld) recording his life story into a dictaphone in California. This device is never smoothly integrated into the story, and Zien flounders on stage while the rest of the cast shines; his frequent moments alone in a spotlight lack blocking beyond stammering and stomping. There is a well-staged, endearing moment at the show’s end that tugs at the heartstrings, but it is singular.
Some of Zien’s turns as side characters are entertaining, though the shtick gets old quick, and his appearance as Albert Einstein uses the scientist as a deus ex machina to discuss the dangers of Nazism and the reasons the Harmonists should get out of Germany.
This “woulda, coulda, shoulda” approach reigns throughout, with many lines about how the violent anti-Semitism of Poland would never reach Germany, or how Vienna is safer than Berlin, eliciting sighs from the audience. An angry number from the elder Rabbi about how he should have somehow killed Hitler, when they wound up in the same place at the same time, is poetic but totally nonsensical.
There is more substance to theatre about the Holocaust than simply issuing tongue-in-cheek warnings, especially to Jewish audience members, that are almost offensive in their simplicity. It’s one thing for the Rabbi to reflect on his life and wish that the Harmonists had escaped earlier; it’s another for Bruce Sussman’s book to judge its characters for not being able to predict the future.
Though its quality is not consistent throughout, Harmony has its high points. Julie Benko as Ruth, a daring young Jewish communist, is a firecracker, while Steven Telsey as the Bulgarian tenor Ari Leschnikoff is a comic delight. Sierra Boggess maintains her lovely voice as Mary, though neither the character nor her performance are interesting.
Much of Carlyle’s choreography is astute, particularly in “Come to the Fatherland,” a scathing satirical number the Harmonists perform in Copenhagen to eviscerate the Nazi cultural agenda. Some of Carlyle’s staging choices stand out as well, including when one of the group’s performances is interrupted by Nazis embedded in the actual audience. This immersive quality is chilling, but doesn’t make up for Harmony’s dissonance.
Photo credit: Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, and Sean Bell in Harmony on Broadway. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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