Barry Manilow’s ‘Harmony’ musical is a blended blessing – The Forward

If “Memory” wasn’t already a marquee identify in showtunes, Barry Manilow most likely would have used the title for a music in his new musical.

Now enjoying on the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “Harmony,” concerning the Comic Harmonists, a sextet of German singer-comedians, can also be all about reminiscence – each historical past’s brief recall for a preferred act erased by the Nazis, and the enduring guilt of the group’s final surviving member.

A pre-show banner, bearing a cartoon of our entertainers, offers us the date Dec. 16, 1933, the night the Harmonists performed Carnegie Corridor. We open on a reminiscence of that night time, recalled a long time later by our narrator, Rabbi (Chip Zien). However Carnegie Corridor was a excessive level, and Rabbi’s right here to inform you why it didn’t final, and, extra to the purpose, why you’ve by no means heard of the Comedians, a narrative that includes some tragic lows.

Rabbi – whose actual identify was Josef Roman Cycowski, and who enrolled in seminary in his native Poland earlier than deciding “it would be nice to sing in a major key for once” – takes us again to the place all of it started for the Harmonists: Berlin, 1927. From there, the present, dotted with creative vaudeville performances that vary from a marionette satire of the Third Reich to a waiter-themed burlesque, charts the group’s success and supreme unraveling within the wake of the Nuremberg Legal guidelines that focused its three Jewish members.

A second to jog our personal reminiscence. It’s one thing of a misnomer to name “Harmony” a “new musical.” Barry Manilow – right here the person who wrote the songs and organized them – and Bruce Sussman, his common lyricist and now librettist, have been engaged on a musical concerning the Comic Harmonists for about 25 years, over 3 times so long as the Harmonists have been lively. The results of this lengthy course of is a present that, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is very polished in components and ragged in others. It’s fairly straightforward to inform which bits have been tempered by time and that are new and wish refinement.

The highlights are the Harmonists’ group numbers, each their kinetic formation and their cabaret antics as a rising troupe. The six males – Harry, the ringleader (Zal Owen); Younger Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld); Erich (Eric Peters), a would-be physician with an countless provide of well-known household associates; piano participant Chopin (Blake Roman); opera buffa bass Bobby (Sean Bell); and good-looking Bulgarian Lesh (Steven Telsey) – are phenomenal of their harmonies, synchronized of their actions and impeccable with their comedian timing.

Each Sussman’s lyrics and Manilow’s rating shine within the interwar idiom of swoony film musical love songs and jazz-inflected comedy. Manilow penned a Liszt pastiche and a Josephine Baker mambo, and with Carlyle’s choreo, they work like gangbusters.

Surprisingly, this consummate pair of sentimental pop writers largely fall down with their ballads, which issue into the romantic plot, between Rabbi and his love curiosity, Mary (Sierra Boggess) and Chopin and his firebrand squeeze, Ruth (Jessie Davidson, an unconvincing composite character). Ruth and Mary, whose struggles come from marrying a gentile and a Jew respectively, flip the nook considerably in a duet known as “Where You Go,” impressed by traces from the Guide of Ruth and the uncommon sequence that faucets the total storytelling potential of the stage.

When “Harmony” tries to do politics and context – a ham-fisted parade of twirling pink flags throughout a Communist rally in a quantity gutsily known as “This Is Our Time” (Sondheim is spinning) – it feels extreme and out of nowhere. This time may very well be higher spent exhibiting how precisely the Comedians went from overlaying boxers with cloches – a form of Weimar-era “Dick in a Box” – at a German membership to headlining Carnegie Corridor, a step we in some way miss.

Coping with Rabbi’s regrets, in songs known as “Threnody,” the present flounders with a bizarre pseudo-recitative, as poor Chip Zien, virtuosically shouldering this clumsy materials, recollects pivotal exchanges tied to the group’s undoing. He flagellates himself unduly, and likewise sings the Shema, in probably the most explicitly Jewish content material one has ever seen from Barry Manilow.

At occasions the Jewishness – references to pastrami, chopped liver, lyrics like “Where I grew up the people threw/A Pogrom every month or two” or that rhyme “shtetl” and “settle” – panders a bit too onerous. Historic cameos from Einstein and Marlene Dietrich (the names within the playbill are decoys, the overworked Zien performs nearly all of them) are far too “Jersey Boys” of their cuteness.

However there are moments, little doubt helped alongside by Beowulf Boritt’s mirror-wall set, that recall among the higher components of “Cabaret.”

The second act crackdown on the group, within the particular person of an Oberstumfuhrer performed by Zak Edwards, performs effectively, notably when adopted by the quantity “Come to the Fatherland.” In that ditty the boys, appalled at being known as “ambassadors” for the Reich, string themselves up like puppets and sing a scathing tourism advert whereas performing in Copenhagen. If Sussman’s lyrics aren’t fairly Fred Ebb-level (“If you’re good at tushie-kissin’/or maybe you’re missin’ a screw/come to the Fatherland! Unless you’re a Jew,”) they appear proper for the boys who alternated between showing in tails and of their underwear.

What sells the music, and far of the drama that follows, is identical ingredient that made the Comic Harmonists successful. The chemistry of the six actors collectively can climate creaky dialogue or awkward dramatic beats. After they sing as one, you are feeling the lack of these males’s chapter in historical past. The strained metaphor of an interfaith act, becoming a member of in music earlier than the dissonance of a regime that thrived on each conformity and division, turns into vivid.

The group’s expertise as a unit is the true magic of the present, and what you’ll keep in mind once you depart the theater – lengthy after you’ve forgotten the melodies.

Harmony opens on the New York Theatre Folksbiene’s Edmond J. Safra Corridor on the Museum of Jewish Heritage April 14. Tickets and knowledge might be discovered here.

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