'Harmony' review — comedy and sorrow in near-perfect harmony
A bio-musical about a historic male singing group whose members were cobbled together from humble backgrounds, showing in retrospect how they achieved a meteoric rise to fame amid the forces — internal disputes, personal troubles, sociopolitical forces — that threatened to tear it all down. I could be describing Ain't Too Proud, Jersey Boys, or now, Harmony. Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a German choral group whose fame collided headfirst with the advent of World War II, is finally debuting in New York with National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene after multiple delays since its 1997 premiere in California.
But the question arises: By now, do we really need Harmony? Ain't Too Proud and Jersey Boys already made successes of the same concept, but I'm happy to report that Harmony earns its place among them, not least of all because of the Russia-Ukraine war that makes this musical's treatment of wartime turmoil feel timely. The many moving parts of this musical aren't in as perfect harmony as the Comedian Harmonists, but they're pretty darn close.
A cast of fresh-faced actors play the Harmonists in their prime: There's the boyish waiter Lesh (Steven Telsey, entering on a literal high note); the sentimental Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld), the reluctant med student Erich (Eric Peters); the caddish pianist Chopin (Blake Roman); the sardonic bass Bobby (Sean Bell); and the musical wunderkind Harry (Zal Owen), who brings the group together and fights hard to keep them that way. To Sussman's credit, none of the Harmonists feel overwritten at the expense of others, though Erich's triumphant number "Your Son Is Becoming a Singer" makes Peters into an early standout, and he continues to be so as his character's secrets are revealed. Roman, too, charms as Chopin in Act 1, but he equally stuns when tragedy brings out his character's vulnerable side in Act 2.
The actors also all tackle Warren Carlyle's high-stepping staging and choreography with ease. The Comedian Harmonists got the "comedian" part of their name from performing onstage antics, and the songs that recreate these performances are the undisputed highlights of Harmony. Phallic humor has never looked or sounded so classy as in "How Can I Serve You, Madame?" (made even funnier with the knowledge that Erich's parents are supposed to be in the audience), and they later channel their talents into biting satire of the Nazi regime as seen in "Welcome to the Fatherland," a tourist-ad parody they perform as marionettes. The only fault of Carlyle's fluid and energetic staging is that it occasionally feels cramped on the small Edmond J. Safra Hall stage — though that's a better problem to have than its opposite.
In the style of Ain't Too Proud, the last surviving member of the band relays all these exploits to the audience. That would be Rabbi; a lovable Chip Zien plays his older self and fills the space perfectly all on his own. Rabbi's narration, filled with deft one-liners, isn't as consistent as Otis Williams's, but he pops in and out of his tale in other ways: Just when you wonder where Zien disappeared to, he appears in a wig, curly mustache, or, in one riotous moment, fishnets, as various one-off characters.
Besides adding to the comedy, however, Zien provides Harmony with its emotional heft. The story of the Harmonists is historically about how the group, which included three Jewish members, was fractured as the Nazis took power. The decision of whether to leave their homeland behind and risk being blacklisted as enemy outsiders in America, or remain in Germany and hope things will blow over lest they become enemies of the state, nearly broke up the brotherly members more than once before the Nazis even could. But Harmony is really a story about a man haunted by regret, reliving the memories of his missed opportunities to change the Harmonists' history — but you won't fully realize that until Zien's piercing 11 o'clock number.
Rounding out the cast are Sierra Boggess and Jessie Davidson as Rabbi and Chip's respective wives, who get a stirring Act 2 duet, "Where We Go," but whose characters otherwise feel rushed and underexplored. All in all, though, Harmony skillfully balances its various through lines: The humorous moments don't feel inappropriate amid heavy threads of anti-Semitism and loss, and these threads are sufficiently explored without plunging the audience into unrelenting despair. With minor exceptions, Harmony hits all the right notes.
Photo credit: Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, and Chip Zien in Harmony. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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