L.A. Theater Review: Barry Manilow’s ‘Harmony’

Harmony reviews Barry Manilow musical

This long-gestating musical about the Comedian Harmonists has a graceful, catchy score by Barry Manilow and a socko cast, but oy, the book.

Harmony” confirms Barry Manilow’s musical theater chops. The pop legend invests this biotuner of the Comedian Harmonists — a real-life German male sextet, pre-WWII toasts of two continents — with graceful, catchy melodies and a reasonably period, lightly jazz-influenced style, especially in the performance sequences. He likely could pen character-based songs, too, if he were handed characters to write for. But despite reputed decades of development, the storytelling remains woefully inadequate to the saga’s potential, let alone worthy of the talents on view at the Ahmanson.

Six cats from diverse backgrounds (three Jews, three Gentiles) combined a Yank-inspired early doo-wop sound with knockabout dance and physical comedy. Essentially, the Four Seasons met the Ritz Brothers in a lightning ascendancy, eventually crushed by Nazism’s simultaneous rise. To play them, the production (from Center Theater Group and Atlanta’s Alliance Theater) has assembled an extraordinary set of young kids who own that stage with vivacity, panache and terrific pipes. There’s no difficulty believing in the troupe’s legend.

Believing in the troupe is another matter. We’re led to expect a passel of disparate individuals who will pull together into a cohesive whole, even as the outside world falls apart. Josef a/k/a “Rabbi” (Shayne Kennon, fulfilling a “Jersey Boys”-like narrator function) himself sums it up: “Amidst all the horror, and despite our squabbles, we found harmony.”

But librettist Bruce Sussman’s key decisions devastate this solid premise. Incredibly, we never get to see the Harmonists find and develop their signature style; it springs full-blown in Berlin alleyways and never changes. Worse, the libretto assumes the guys behaved in exactly the same goofy, jokey manner offstage and on. There’s neither reality nor contrast in their interactions, especially since each fellow is permitted one trait apiece, if that.

Rabbi, for instance, is a cocky Jolson clone. One guy’s grumpy; two are dewy screamers (literally); one’s a suave heartthrob and the group’s founder is earnest. They’re like seven — okay, six — dwarfs circled by a Snow White (Leigh Ann Larkin as Rabbi’s blond inamorata) and Rose Red (Hannah Corneau as the resident Emma Goldman). All indeed behave like fairytale characters much more than actual persons haunted by history.

Those “squabbles” Rabbi mentions must’ve been cut during La Jolla or Atlanta tryouts, because the prevailing mode is adolescent cutup. In a useless backstage “Officer Krupke” farrago, one lad rehearses revealing his career to his parents. The great Marlene Dietrich (Lauren Elaine Taylor) is rudely caricatured as an untalented dimwit just so our boys can wax smartass while singing backup. The occasional serious moment plops into scenes like an errant sandbag.

Act two, as Hitler takes power, starts badly for Western Europe and no better for “Harmony.” Ninety minutes of principals frisking like puppies in a sack ill-prepares them, or us, when events turn dark. Characters make abrupt, unprepared-for about-faces and wail in anguish, engaging in passionate arguments whose sense is impossible to follow.

Sussman proves a capable lyricist in “Every Single Day” and “In This World,” power ballads which retain delicacy without overpowering. The title tune’s signature “oom-pah-pah” tickles the fancy and sticks in the memory.

But oh, that script. Sussman and helmer Tony Speciale must think none of us has ever heard of Nazi Germany or anti-Semitism, because they interject numberless historical nuggets solemnly intoned on the sidelines (“Attention! The following Nuremberg Laws will be enforced”), and threats delivered by oily Gauleiters in cliched encounters verging on camp. Protest song “Come to the Fatherland” is a cheesy embarrassment.

“Harmony” looks grand in Tobin Ost’s supple sets and elegant costumes, but it never recovers from its maladroit emphases. We want to follow complex characters coping with high-stakes peril, and instead we get hysterical flapping and a stilted primer on the roots of World War II.

L.A. Theater Review: Barry Manilow's 'Harmony'

Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles; 2,074 seats; $105 top. Opened, reviewed March 12, 2014. Runs through April 13. Running time: TWO HOURS  40 MIN.

Production

A Center  Theater Group and Alliance Theater, Atlanta, production of a new musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman, music by Barry Manilow.

Creative

Directed by Tony Speciale. Choreography, JoAnn M. Hunter. Set and costumes, Tobin Ost; lighting, Jeff Croiter & Seth Jackson; sound, John Shivers & David Patridge; projections, Darrel Maloney; orchestrations, Doug Walter; musical direction, John O’Neill; production stage manager, Lora K. Powell.

Cast

Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Chris Dwan, Douglas Williams, Will Blum, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hannah Corneau, Lauren Elaine Taylor, Brandon O’Dell.

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  1. Dan Brown says:

    I went to see this production last week with my theater class, and I must say that I agree with a lot of what the reviewer has said here. The characters seemed very poorly fleshed out. From my seat in the upper reaches of theatre, it was very difficult for me to tell most of the Harmonists apart. Sure, I could pick out Lesh (admittedly due to his comparative heaviness), and I recognized the Opera guy whenever he spoke, but I kept mixing up the pairs of Chopin/Erich and Rabbi/Harry. There was nothing that really made these characters distinct in my head. Though Chopin and Rabbi become somewhat more defined by the end, the rest of the group remained one-note personalities (I’m not surprised that the reviewer forgot to mention the casting of Harry, the sixth Harmonist, because that character didn’t have EVEN ONE trait to define his character). I also agree that the actors were uncomfortably static at times (I explained my feelings on this a little more in a response below). Other things I found odd about the production (and I’m surprised that no review I’ve read about this play has brought up) was the inexplicable lack of German/Polish/Bulgarian accents in the cast. In fact, the only time that the characters do have accents is when they are speaking to English-language audiences on tour (it’s notable that Einstein speaks with a German accent during their conversation while the Harmonists do not. Does that mean that Einstein is speaking English while the Harmonists respond in German? It’s possible, but it’s still weird). This accent thing speaks to the bigger issue that the review mentions above: that this play boasts a middle-schooler’s understanding of Nazi Germany. All sense of culture has been Americanized and then had not quite subtle anti-semitism attached to it. Every Nazi that appears is in full-uniform, even Standartenfuhrer at their performance! My favorite scenes in the play were the wedding and the “movie-set” one. This is because both these parts have some cultural weight to them. The traditional Jewish wedding (complete with chuppah, circling the groom, singing of hymns, and breaking glass) was a beautiful time-out from the play (especially when one keeps in mind that this is Rabbi looking back on his life), and the song that Chopin performs during the movie-shoot scene is very evocative of musicals that era. Both these parts make the whole story feel way more substantial.

    I’m sorry about the ranting. I’ve got to write a paper on the play for my class and this was a good way to organize my thoughts in a casual manner. Also, despite all my complaints, I did enjoy the play. Then again, I am the kind of person that will happily watch a train-wreck of film as long as it’s an interesting train-wreck. I certainly wouldn’t describe “Harmony” as a train-wreck though. More like a “crashing-through-one’s-own-garage-because-they-thought-the-car-was-in-reverse.”
    ;D

  2. Tim says:

    The Ahmanson is too large of a venue for this. A scaled-down, more intimate production at the Taper would be interesting to see.

    • Dan Brown says:

      I totally agree with you. I sat up in the upper balcony (I don’t know if there is a lower balcony as well, since it was my first time in the theatre, but it seemed like there must of been based on how friggin’ high up I was). From there you could really tell how static the actors were, and how small that made them seem in comparison with the set. Seriously, in the scene where Rabbi proposes to Mary (which probably has the least amount of “set” of any scene in the play), the waste of space is startling. For the most part I was impressed with the moving, versatile set pieces (those pillars and screens were used effectively for the most part, and I really enjoyed the design of the train scene[s?]), but a part of me worried that this creativity derived a great deal from a need to fill excess space.

  3. Conchita Martínez de Velasco says:

    the writer of this review must be a bitter one.

    • Beverly Scott says:

      My husband, friends and I thoroughly enjoyed Harmony. We were moved by the music, truth and sentiment. Couldn’t see any negatives in this production. Thanks to all for a wonderful production. What a fabulous cast!!!! A standing ovation was given and so we’ll deserved!!!!!

  4. Jana DuLaney says:

    This is not a fair review of “Harmony” – both Bruce and Barry have worked years to protect and to bring this to the stage. Manilow is a perfectionist…and a brilliant song writer. Bruce has worked just as hard and long to bring this to make it a great story – but, there are limitations when your doing a Broadway play. This joker who wrote the review…needs to find some kindness in his heart – seems to me he was put off by something that most likely had nothing to do with the play.

  5. Randy L. says:

    This review makes me a little sad. While I do think it could use some re-working, re-timing of scenes and fleshing out as mentioned, it did a wonderful job of conveying the story and times in which it is set. The audience (I was there last night) was quite moved. And isn’t that what theater is all about?

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