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A group of men wearing tuxedos and white bow ties

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Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell (Photo: Julieta Cervetas)



Reviewed By Marc Miller

Ever hear of the Comedian Harmonists? Neither, probably, did most of the audience filing into the Ethel Barrymore for Harmony, the long-aborning musical biography of the once-famed German sextet. No, they're likely here to hear the first and only Broadway musical score of Barry Manilow, set to the book and lyrics of Bruce Sussman, his longtime collaborator. They won't be disappointed. There's not much here to remind anyone of "I Write the Songs" or "Mandy," but this is a real, full-fledged score, old-style melodic and dramatically satisfying. Harmony has its faults, but Manilow's work isn't among them.

Those faults have mainly to do with compressing and altering the actual events and failing to sufficiently individualize the Harmonists. The group, formed in late-1920s Berlin, consisted of three Gentiles and three Jews, and once you know that, you pretty much know where the story is headed. As they gain popularity, the close-harmony band of brothers argues a lot while making beautiful sounds and introducing more and more comic shtick into their repertoire. Truth to tell, they borrowed much of their style from-and even once shared a bill with-the Revelers, a 1920s American quintet, but Sussman doesn't bother with that. He doesn't bother with a lot.

Their story is recounted by the last surviving Harmonist, Roman, nicknamed Rabbi, who, fortunately, is played by Chip Zien. It's a career high, a real workout dramatically and vocally for the veteran performer, whose 76-year-old voice is as strong as ever. He also does cameos as Richard Strauss and Albert Einstein, quickly switching Tom Watson's very wiggy wigs; his Einsteinian remark, "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing," was met with healthy audience applause. The times we live in, children.

A person in a vest and tie

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Chip Zien (Photo: Julieta Cervetas)


Too bad Rabbi doesn't tell us more about the group members' personalities. Young Rabbi (usually Danny Kornfeld, Matthew Mucha last night) tries to be the uniter. Erich (Eric Peters) has connections. Chopin (Blake Roman), naturally, plays the piano. Harry (Zal Owen) is scrappy. Bobby (Sean Bell), the bass, is the businessman. Lesh (Steven Telsey) is Bulgarian and can hit a high E above C, and that's about all we know about him.

They're in the ascendant for most of the first act, culminating in a triumphant 1933 trip to America and concert at Carnegie Hall, along with a series of hit records and a budding film career. And romance: Young Rabbi successfully woos the reluctant Mary (Sierra Boggess, singing sweetly), a non-Jew, and the non-Jew Chopin marries the Jewish Ruth (Julie Benko, making me wish I'd caught her Fanny Brice), a Bolshevik firebrand. Nothing remarkable about these love stories, but they do inspire a couple of gorgeous melodies. In a healthier climate, "And What Do You See?" and "Every Single Day," and the second-act Mary-Ruth duet "Where You Go," would become standards.

Two women sitting on a bench

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Julie Benko, Sierra Boggess (Photo: Julieta Cervetas)


Third Reich? Most of the Harmonists figure the trouble will blow over, to the point where they turn down an offer from Josephine Baker (Allison Semmes) to appear with her in the Ziegfeld Follies, opting instead to head back home. You want to scream at them, "Don't!" but you don't have to: the older Rabbi does, reaching across time from 1988 (he made it to 1998). They don't listen.

And on to a much darker, and better-written, second act. Standartenfuhrer (Andrew O'Shanick), at first a fan and a sympathetic Nazi as Nazis go, becomes a cultural commissioner, and more menacing. Ruth, still rousing rabble, is clearly doomed. The Harmonists, their creative outlets disappearing, are eventually forced to disband, and some are imprisoned. Incredibly, all six did make it through the war, and lived at least into the 1960s.

Plenty of story, then, but not a lot of insight into who these guys were or what motivated them. Part of the trouble might have been the understudying Mucha, who was vocally capable and hit all his marks-quite a feat in itself, given Warren Carlyle's intricate direction and choreography-but didn't exhibit a great deal of personality or charisma. But there are other problems, beginning with the set by the usually reliable Beowulf Boritt, mostly a black glass cube that does little to evoke time or place. Doug Walter's orchestrations for a nine-piece ensemble are synth-heavy and lack that proper 1930s fizziness.

And then, Sussman takes a lot of liberties. Chopin actually had three wives, not one. And a key mid-Act Two incident, which has Young Rabbi making a fateful decision, and allows Zien to comment on it with the gut-wrenching "Threnody," probably never happened, calling Sussman's credibility elsewhere into question. Further, the Comedian Harmonists, judging from this, were far more harmonists than comedians; most of their comic numbers fall flat, though they perform a trenchant one in Copenhagen, "Come to the Fatherland," riffing on the Reich while selling it as cultural diplomacy. Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie's costumes here are a big plus, and then there's that dazzling hot pink number for Josephine Baker. Other pluses are Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, which makes almost all the lyrics audible, and lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher, who's been lighting stages since the 1963 Spoon River Anthology.

Not always a neatly told story, then, but a chilling, moving one, with too much uncomfortable relevance to a current climate that frowns on otherness and, in some quarters, delights in angering the masses into potential violence. I'll tell you this: My husband, normally a cool customer in these matters, wept through some of Act One and most of Act Two. Not just because of what was going on onstage, he said, but because of the frightening parallels to where we are now. If that, combined with some beautiful Manilow melodies, isn't enough to push Harmony over into go-see-it territory, I don't know what is.



At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes