By Keri Tombazian
My husband Thom and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary Wednesday night seated with the strangers we have come to regard as family: the faithful opening-night enthusiast patrons of the Ahmnanson Theater. Barry Manilow’s Harmony, the story of a vocal sextet in Nazi Germany, opened to cheers and tears. The audience was on its feet at curtain call. Eberhard Fechner’s 1977 documentary about the Comedian Harmonists’ remarkable rise to fame and ultimate destruction at the hands of the Third Reich inspired Manilow and writing partner Bruce Sussman to hunt down every detail of their lives, set it to music, and bring it to the stage.
While playing in Germany, Manilow combed record stores, inquired of locals, and came to regard the Harmonists as “the Beatles of Germany.” And although Ahmanson Theatre magazine editor Rob Weinert-Kendt insists Harmony is not a Holocaust musical, in fact, it is. Telling the stories of personal trial, abject horror, and sometimes triumph through the evil that was Hitler’s Germany is what adds to the Holocaust narrative, never to be forgotten, lest it be repeated. The very existence of three Gentiles and three Jews bringing together smart comedy, highbrow music, and especially American Jazz, was an unintentional finger in the face of the Nazi doctrine. Bravo.
That is why, despite its spotty book, and not quite complete score, Harmony should be honed to its full potential and have its day on Broadway.
In 2013, I had the good fortune of attending a series of lectures at Chapman University by Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel (Author, Night). He lamented that as time moves on, soon, all of the survivors, all of the voices will be gone. He admonished artists, especially, to find ways to continue to tell their stories. In their teary opening night curtain speech, it was clear that telling this story has been a dream come true for Manilow and Sussman.
The mostly able cast is equipped for success with Tobin Ost’s dapper costumes and impressive set, beautifully lit by Jeff Coiter and Seth Jackson. The six actors have in their favor clear-bell voices, melodic Manilow tunes, and good looks. Against them are a repetitive (though beautiful) score and a book whose attempt at comedy often falls flat. By all accounts the real-life Comedian Harmonists were hilarious, but something is lost in the translation. It seems almost unfair to call Sussman’s book “derivative” given that so many pieces of the story are not unique, but he did not avoid direct echoing of Les Miserable, Fiddler, Forever Plaid, and even the Sound of Music. As a fan of the man who “writes the songs that make the whole world sing”, I was tickled by the be-bopping opening number, but by its third or fourth singing, I began shifting in my seat.
Matt Bailey does himself proud in his L.A. theatre debut as Harry Frommerman. Frommerman introduces each of the five singers through a series of auditions. As Rabbi, Shayne Kennon, lacks nothing of sincerity, but oy, where is the funny? He sure does shine when he sings, though. Will Blum as flamboyant Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff is a hoot. In both looks and performance, Will Taylor is as dreamy as his character, Erwin “Chopin” Bootz, is drawn. Bobby Biberti ‘s (Douglass Williams) considerable operatic bass-baritone carries him through the most thankless of the six roles. Hannah Corneau is well cast as Ruth and holds her own in the least fleshed out roles of the leads. Mary (Leigh Ann Larkin) is the more developed of the two female leads, leaving no doubt about her devotion to her husband, and delivering the kind of sweet voiced ballads we expect from her.
Having first staged Harmony in La Jolla, California in 1997, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have walked a very long mile to get Harmony to Los Angeles. Here’s to a little work and a next stop in NYC.
Harmony plays at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles now thorugh April 13th. For more details and to purchase your tickets click here.