Music By Barry Manilow; Book & Lyrics By Bruce Sussman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 5.15.22
Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place
by Shani R. Friedman on 4.20.22
(L-R) Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, and Chip Zien in Harmony.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
BOTTOM LINE: Songwriting team Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman craft a toe-tapping, heartbreaking, engrossing account of The Comedian Harmonists, the nearly forgotten singing superstars of the early 20th century.
You'd be forgiven for never having heard of The Comedian Harmonists. As massively successful as the all-male Jewish and Gentile sextet was in the late 1920s and early 30s—performing across Europe, playing at Carnegie Hall, and appearing in 21 movies—the Nazis were able to swiftly shut them down when the party stopped them from performing and attempted to destroy their archive. It has even taken the likes of Barry Manilow a quarter century to bring their story to New York, after earlier runs in La Jolla, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
The ensemble is formed in 1928 after Harry (Zal Owen) places an ad in a Berlin newspaper. He finds Lesh (Steven Telsey), Erich (Eric Peters), Chopin (Blake Roman), Bobby (Sean Bell) and Josef, aka Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld). Between them is an actor, waiter, medical student, and son of a cantor. Guiding the audience through their meteoric success and unraveling is the adult Rabbi (Chip Zien), the last living member, as 50 years later he recalls the magical highs (the Carnegie Hall concert, meeting Albert Einstein, and opening for Marlene Dietrich) and the lasting regrets, like not seizing an offer from NBC to stay and perform in the US as their lives at home were being decimated. Two love stories also play out, one between Josef and the non-Jewish Mary (Sierra Boggess), and another between Chopin and Jewish protestor Ruth (Jessie Davidson).
Traveling 180 degrees from the disco-era "Copacabana," Manilow and Bruce Sussman have packed the show with catchy and lovely numbers, from the origin song "The Auditions" to the group's breakout "How Can I Serve You, Madame?" to the showstopper "We're Going Loco" as the Comedian Harmonists back Josephine Baker (Ana Hoffman), to the defiant "Come To The Fatherland." Director Warren Carlyle's outstanding choreography elevates the songs to an even higher caliber, particularly in the dazzling "Loco" and "Fatherland." Less well-served by the writing than their male counterparts, Mary and Ruth do get the moving, wrenching duet "Where You Go" late in the second half. Though given more to do than Davidson, Boggess and her considerable pipes are still somewhat wasted as the devoted love interest.
The leads are all musical theatre pros, and they make for a polished company that looks and sounds terrific, no small achievement after a two-year COVID delay. The standout of the Harmonists is Peters, whose well-connected Erich provides comic relief and innumerable revelations. But there would be no show without winning theatre veteran Chip Zien, who is so hard-working he even does the pre-recorded "shut off your devices" announcement. Indeed, those familiar with his work (like the recent revival of Caroline or Change), may recognize him via his distinctive voice alone. I hope the 70-something Zien, who not only plays the adult Rabbi but also pops up as Albert Einstein and Dietrich, among others, is getting bonus pay.
Nearly a century after they made music, the Comedian Harmonists are receiving a much-deserved spotlight and a renewed appreciation. And with the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes both in New York City and around the country, Harmony arrives at a prescient moment.
(Harmony plays at National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Edmond J. Safra Hall Theatre at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, through May 15, 2022. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Masks and proof of vaccine required. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays at 7; Saturdays at 8:45; and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Check the box office for schedule updates. Tickets are $79-129 and available at nytf.org or by calling 855-449-4658.)
Harmony features music by Barry Manilow, with book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Set Design by Beowulf Boritt. Lighting Design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier. Costume Design by Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie. Associate Director/Choreographer is Sara Edwards. Wig and Hair Design by Tom Watson. Music Director and additional vocal and music arranger is John O’Neill.
The cast is Sean Bell, Sierra Boggess, Elise Frances Daniells, Jessie Davidson, Zak Edwards, Abby Goldfarb, Eddie Grey, Ana Hoffman, Shayne Kennon, Danny Kornfeld, Benjamin Harold Moore, Kenny Morris, Matthew Mucha, Zal Owen, Tori Palin, Eric Peters, Barrett Riggins, Blake Roman, Kayleen Seidl, Andrew O’Shanick, Steven Telsey, Nancy Ticotin, and Kate Weslere and Chip Zien.