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Theatre in Review: Harmony (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

Steven Telsey, Sean Bell, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Harmony is a notably double-edged title for a show that celebrates a once-famous singing group yet which, given the time and place, can't help skidding into tragedy. The Comedian Harmonists were a real-life German troupe whose Olympic vocal athletics, combined with madcap comedy, made them the toast of Weimar Germany. I only need to add that three members were Jewish for you to know that this story isn't going to end well. Bruce Sussman and Barry Manilow's musical, which traces the Harmonists' rise and fall against a background of a rising Fascist threat, provides plenty of musical theatre thrills while never forgetting that the future holds disunity, exile, and death. It's a remarkable balancing act.

In Warren Carlyle's dynamic, constantly in motion production, the Harmonists are played by a sextet of triple threats: Danny Kornfeld, as Rabbi, a Jewish Polish émigré who thinks "it would be nice to sing in a major key for a change;" Blake Roman as Chopin, a former whorehouse pianist; Zal Owen as Harry, the group's optimistic-against-all-odds founder; Steven Telsey as boyish, redhead-chasing Lesh; Eric Peters as secretive, wealthy, astonishingly well-connected Erich; and Sean Bell as Bobby, who thinks the Nazis can be accommodated and lives to regret it. Their technical skills are astonishing, and you won't find a more ingratiating collection of talents in New York right now.

Longtime collaborators Sussman (book and lyrics) and Manilow (music), best-known for '70s-era hits like "Copacabana," "I Write the Songs," are not pop stars slumming in musical theatre. Harmony has a complex, full-bodied score that carries the tumultuous, crowded narrative across several years, keeping tabs on a broad gallery of characters. Both creators have an innate grasp of musical storytelling. The title tune, with its upbeat, Jerry Herman-ish flair, establishes the Harmonists' unique combination of sophisticated music and mocking humor. It is followed by "The Auditions," in which Harry assembles this motley crew of amateurs and professionals, pushing them into street singing to get some kind, any kind, of public notice. In these two numbers, the Harmonists individual personalities and musical styles are quickly, economically established.

Theses scenes signal that Harmony is going to be a classic backstage saga. But even in the early scenes, Germany's political ferment is present -- and the score weaves these dramatic threads into a seamless work. The upbeat anthem "This is Our Time" begins with Rabbi wooing his girlfriend Mary, then shifts to Harry urging the practical Bobby to take over as the Harmonists' manager, before ending at a Bolshevik rally featuring Ruth, Mary's great friend, who attracts Chopin's attentions. It's a remarkable piece of writing that, in a single stroke, establishes key relationships, launches the Harmonists' career, and sketches in the era's social turmoil, which will have profound consequences for everyone.

Sussman's book maintains a firm grasp on the sprawling narrative. To provide dramatic focus, he foregrounds two romances. Mary resists Rabbi's ardent attentions until he fully understands that, in making a mixed marriage, they are treading down a perilous path; they end up sharing a chuppah with Chopin and Ruth, who are happy to rush into marriage. But the very different outcomes of these relationships, portrayed in counterpoint to the Harmonists' growing official disfavor, solidly anchors the drama; as the walls close in, each character is forced to consider what really matters. The action returns repeatedly to a key inflection point -- a smash-hit concert at Carnegie Hall -- when the Harmonists must decide whether to capitalize on their American success or return to an increasingly hostile homeland.

The six leads sail through the fiendishly complex vocal arrangements by Manilow and John O'Neill while executing Carlyle's choreography like manic marionettes. The latter comparison is made literal in "Come to the Fatherland," a barbed piece of political satire, portraying ordinary Germans as Nazi puppets, that gets them in hot water with Hitler's regime. They whirl and kick their way through the classical music travesty "Hungarian Rhapsody #20," which results in complaints of purveying "degenerate" music. And they display considerable elan when appearing, half-dressed, in the mildly risqué "How Can I Serve You Madame?"

That number ends with a crass penis gag, one of a handful of moments when the show strays off course. Acting as narrator is Chip Zien, who plays the elderly Rabbi and assumes other roles including Richard Strauss (who, as president of the music ministry, runs interference for the group) and Albert Einstein (who warns them about the coming storm). It's always great to have Zien around but making him appear in drag as Marlene Dietrich (for a scene about the Harmonists' stage debut) is a descent into shtick that Harmony doesn't need. More troubling is the climax. The Harmonists, their careers over and their prospects for escape shrinking, are on a train to Munich; when Hitler comes onboard. Rabbi is seized by the impulse to grab a gun and rid the world of a monster. That he doesn't becomes the source of lifelong regret, cueing the bombastic eleven o'clock number "Threnody." It's a jarring false note: Nothing we've seen of Rabbi suggests he would be capable of such an act -- he probably doesn't know how to use a gun -- and the overwrought melody and lyrics represent a too-obvious lunge for significance; underplaying this moment would only add to its impact.

The show recovers with a touching finale detailing the characters' later lives, however, and the score is otherwise filled with lovely and dramatically relevant things. Among the best are "Every Single Day," a soaring ballad, with a carpe diem theme, for young Rabbi; "We're Goin' Loco!," a fantasy number from a Broadway engagement that never was, co-starring Josephine Baker; and "Where You Go," in which Mary and Ruth assess the states of their marriages, one growing more solid in the face of adversity and the other collapsing under stress.

As Mary, Sierra Boggess makes a surprisingly tough-minded heroine, utterly lacking in illusions about where her love match is likely to take her. Jessie Davidson captures Ruth's political idealism as well as her mounting disenchantment over a fraying marriage. Andrew O'Shanick is eerily polite as a Nazi officer who tries to befriend the Harmonists before lowering the boom. Ana Hoffman makes a lively Josephine Baker, kicking up her heels in her big number and figuring prominently in a surprise revelation about Erich.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt provides a kind of mirrored surround that provides an excellent medium for the multifaceted video projections of Batwin + Robin: art deco wall patterns; Communist posters; synagogue windows that are suddenly, brutally shattered; and a time-travel sequence in which calendar pages and images from several decades seem to disappear into a vortex. The lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer is typically first-rate, carving out the cast, distinguishing between past and present, and adding ballyhoos, silhouettes, and footlights where required. If costume designers Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie have outfitted the men more effectively than the women, one imagines that this task must have been notably challenging on an Off-Broadway budget. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design combines such effects as trains, smashing glass, and sirens with a blessedly transparent level of reinforcement for the cast.

"It would be nice if someone knew we were there," muses the elderly Rabbi near the end. Indeed, it's a tale eminently worth telling, a moment of grace and good fellowship amid years of horror. And, given the current political climate, it feels distressingly pertinent. I first saw Harmony 25 years ago in La Jolla, starring Danny Burstein and the late Rebecca Luker, with Patrick Wilson in the supporting cast. It was an affecting piece, but in its long trip to New York its power has grown exponentially. It currently runs at the until May 8. It deserves a much longer life. --David Barbour

(14 April 2022)

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