Asix-year labor of love on the part of Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, "Harmony" is a small musical with a big story to tell. With remarkable clarity and dispatch --- and some breathtakingly fluid direction from David Warren --- the show unfolds the fact-based story of the Comedian (or Comedy) Harmonists, a sextet of vocalists in Berlin, half Jewish, half Gentile, whose rise to international fame coincides with --- and is ultimately undone by --- the rise of the Nazi party. It's a solid show, impeccably staged and performed, whose major disappointment is the contribution of Manilow, its marquee name.

Asix-year labor of love on the part of Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, “Harmony” is a small musical with a big story to tell. With remarkable clarity and dispatch — and some breathtakingly fluid direction from David Warren — the show unfolds the fact-based story of the Comedian (or Comedy) Harmonists, a sextet of vocalists in Berlin, half Jewish, half Gentile, whose rise to international fame coincides with — and is ultimately undone by — the rise of the Nazi party. It’s a solid show, impeccably staged and performed, whose major disappointment is the contribution of Manilow, its marquee name.

The lengthy opening number begins with the group’s Carnegie Hall debut in 1933, before we are whisked back to the Harmonists’ humble beginnings in 1927 Berlin, where narrator (and group member) Roman (Rabbi) Cycowski (Danny Burstein) introduces the rest of the clan auditioning for leader Harry Frohman (Thom Christopher Warren). Erwin (Chopin) Bootz (Patrick Wilson) is a former whorehouse piano player; Ari (Lesh) Leshnikov (Mark Chmiel) is a gangly Bulgarian redhead with a high tenor; German Bobby Biberti’s (James Clow) first question refers to financial matters; and Erich Collin (Steven Goldstein) is a doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood.

Rabbi gained his nickname from his former profession, which he practiced in Poland until “six pogroms in 10 months” gave him other ideas; now he looks forward to “singing in a major key.” One of book writer Sussman’s graceful touches is his use of gentle Jewish humor throughout the show, making a subtle and all the more moving contrast to the grim events that form the story’s background.

The Harmonists’ rags-to-riches story is traced in traditional style, with kernels of conflict arising and being diffused on cue, and pit stops for a pair of perfunctorily drawn interfaith romances: Rabbi falls for the gentile Mary (Rebecca Luker), while Chopin is won by the socialist Ruth (Janet Metz). The first of several cameos by famous figures — apparently a new musical trend (see “Ragtime”) — is made by Marlene Dietrich (a convincing Jodi Stevens with a drop-dead funny exit line), whom the Harmonists support in their first nightclub gig.

This “Lost in the Shadows” number reveals the collaborators at their best: Sussman provides both a smooth lyric and witty dialogue (“That’s not singing, that’s loitering,” snipes a disgruntled Harmonist); Manilow’s languid, torchy melody is among the few with a whiff of period flavor; and Warren’s direction and Derek McLane’s designs combine to provide a small bit of theatrical cleverness — we alternately see Marlene performing her number and the Harmonists crooning and bitching backstage — that’s used several times in the show to great effect.

But just as fame and fortune arrive, so does the heavy hand of history: As the group tours the world reprising the title tune, a grim counterpoint is sung by a Nazi chorus, gradually gaining power and influence back home. (Sussman interpolates historical fact into the show with general finesse, as when someone casually grouses of a rowdy band of Nazis in a nightclub audience: “They took four seats here and 12 in the Reichstag.”)

The first act ends on a powerful, theatrically audacious note: Rabbi’s cry of despair at the memory of the group’s fateful decision to return to Germany even after the tide of Nazi terror had begun its inexorable sweep (and despite a warning by a caricatured Albert Einstein, no less, who comes backstage at Carnegie Hall).

After an utterly extraneous dance number that is obviously an attempt to supply the traditional big-musical blandishments, the second act follows the group’s gradual disintegration under pressure from the Nazis, who eventually order the Harmonists to disband due to their racial mixture — under an edict signed, Sussman pointedly reminds us, by Richard Strauss.

With six personal histories to relate in at least some measure, in addition to the saga of the group as a whole — not to mention the necessity of sketching in the historical context — Sussman and Co. had their work cut out for them. The show’s easy flow is thus a major accomplishment, even as its general air of minimal depth can’t entirely be excused by the many fascinating strands of the story it has to tell.

It’s no coincidence that the most memorable song, “Where You Go,” is virtually the only one that digs deeply into the emotions of the characters. A haunting duet for Mary and Ruth, one singing of her allegiance to her husband come what may, the other bitterly accepting her abandonment, it’s the show’s high point — and it belongs to secondary characters, both impressively acted and sung by Luker and particularly Metz.

Rabbi’s function as narrator gives his character a chance to accrue depth, but though the personality and history of each Harmonist is cleanly and distinctly sketched, there isn’t time for much else. (One would be inclined to add that the Nazis’ interventions are treated with a dramatically heavy hand, but that gripe’s inadmissible — the Nazis weren’t noted for their lightness of touch.)

Performances across the board are terrific, with Burstein taking honors due to his prominent part, but all the leads showing both charisma and vocal finesse , and together giving a fair approximation of the Harmonists’ magic.

But “Harmony,” as a musical about musicians, must rise or fall on its tunes. Right now, it does neither. Manilow’s melodies are pleasant and polished, but fatally bland. As a pop song stylist, he’s never been renowned for challenging conventions — or even nudging them. When placed in the context of a book musical with some pretty heavy matters to relate, his songs sound watery and generic — you feel they could be snatched from any one of his albums, or dispatched there, with minimal tweaking.

And so “Harmony” remains a show with almost everything in place, from McLane’s spare, fluidly elegant sets to Mark Wendland’s richly varied costumes, supporting a cast of talented, expressive performers — all orchestrated by director Warren along the eloquent lines of Sussman’s generally intelligent, carefully crafted book. It doesn’t shy away from the power of its tale, but “Harmony” doesn’t press too heavily on the idea of musical harmony as metaphor. That turns out to be a good thing, since music is the only facet of this show that doesn’t make a sufficiently strong statement.

Harmony

(Mandell Weiss Theater; 492 seats; $ 42.50 top)

Production

La Jolla Playhouse presents a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman and music by Barry Manilow. Directed by David Warren; music direction, Joseph Thalken; orchestrations, Ralph Burns.

Crew

Choreography, Charles Moulton; vocal arrangements, Randy Crenshaw; additional vocal arrangements, Seth Rudetsky; set, Derek McLane; costumes, Mark Wendland; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; stage manager, Steve McCorkle; casting, Jay Binder (East Coast), Kim Orchen (West Coast); artistic director, Michael Greif. Opened, reviewed Oct. 19, 1997; runs through Nov. 23. Running time: 3 hours.

Cast

Cast: Danny Burstein ("Rabbi"), Thom Christopher Warren (Harry), James Clow (Bobby), Mark Chmiel (Lesh), Steven Goldstein (Erich), Patrick Wilson ("Chopin") , Rebecca Luker (Mary), Janet Metz (Ruth), Tom Titone (Rally Leader), Jodi Stevens (Marlene), Scott Robertson (Einstein, Felix), Casey Nicholaw (Ezra), Jessica Sheridan (Madame), Kurt Ziskie (Standartenfuhrer), Scott Robinson (Dirk) , Thursday Farrar (Josephine), Trent DeLong (Obersturmfuhrer); Christiane Farr-Wersinger, Pascal Faye, Sean Grant, Lisa Mayer, Jennifer Morris, Arte Phillips, Kiersten Van Horne.
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