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Harmony -- At Last

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It's only taken 17 years for me to get the chance to see Harmony again. That's the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical that had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, which I've been writing about, oh, more than occasionally... It's the story of the real-life Comedian Harmonists, a wildly popular mix-religion "close Harmony" group from Germany in the late 1920s until the mid-1930s when events overpowered them, as the Nazis came to power.

The show ran into development hell with producers for a very long time, but finally got revived late last year at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, and now is being done in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre, with the Center Theatre Music Group. It got glowing raves in Atlanta, though mixed reviews in L.A. With all due respect to the critics here, while I understand their criticisms, I largely disagree with most of them.

The show is extremely good. It's flawed, but the issues are in the details and not the appeal of the production. It's a rich, interesting, thoughtful, tuneful, dark, funny show that misses on a few cylinders, but ultimately and overall is quite entertaining. I admire it, too, for what it's attempting to undertake, and that it largely succeeds at it.

It's important to note, too, that unless you're talking about the 15-20 Greatest Broadway Musicals of All Time, pretty much all shows are flawed in one way or another. And Harmony isn't actually even a Broadway musical yet -- it's only had three tryout productions. (Two, really, since this in L.A. is largely the same co-production as that in Atlanta.) That's no excuse, nor no reason not to criticize -- in fact, this is the very time when criticism does the creators the most good -- but perspective has to be kept. When Camelot was out of town, for instance, the first production ran about 4-1/2 hours. A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum was a bit unfocused and not working well with baffled audiences, until Stephen Sondheim wrote "Comedy Tonight" out of town in Washington, D.C., to open the show. One of the most famous telegrams in theater history came from out-of-town when Michael Todd wrote about a show in tryouts, "No Girls No Tunes No Chance." The show was Oklahoma! They fixed things. It did just fine.

Again, this isn't to overlook the shows flaws, only to put them in context. Harmony, as it stands right now, is a very good show that works well. It needs some more work, for my taste, but it's fine-tuning that it needs, not an overhaul of a problematic production. I don't think this is just my opinion -- the packed audience gave it a rousing response throughout. That doesn't make them, or me, right. But this isn't a piece of fluffery that's able to razzle-dazzle an unthinking public with light-hearted joviality -- it's a serious, moody, thoughtful story that has a bleak plot development, and a heartbreaking, albeit moving and satisfying ending. This is hardly the stuff used to blind an audience with glitzy tinsel and distracting fireworks), and the audience was involved to the very end, cheering at the curtain call.

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Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Clearly, it's the Manilow-Sussman score that attracts most people's interests. And it's very good. Not just musically, creating a sense of period and location, but the lyrics are smart, flowing, and effective. And sometimes quite funny. I didn't find them to necessarily leap out, but they fit the music, characters and plot very well. This isn't a Barry Manilow Score. (I don't mean that pejoratively, but descriptively.) It's a score than fits the show and its locale. If you're listening to hear -- "Oh, yeah, there, that's Manilow" -- yes, you'll hear it in places. Just like you'll hear Richard Rodgers in all his shows. But for much of it, I suspect most people, if they weren't told who wrote it, wouldn't have a clue. And would be seriously impressed.

Yes, there are a couple of beautiful, soaring "Manilow" ballads -- and whose lyrics do leap out -- most notably the break-out "Every Single Day" (which Manilow now performs in his concerts) and "In This World" (a -- literally -- heart-breaking song near the end that is problematic in the story for the character singing it) but even those fits the show, and ultimately most of the score is focused on character and moving the plot. Often quite cleverly.

For instance, "This is Our Time" (pictured above) actually has three different meanings to the characters singing their own version -- the group itself; one of the women, Ruth, protesting the growing fascism; and two of the characters in their budding romance; These three separate scenes end up blending and overlapping one another and turn into a joint number. The song, "Where You Go," is a moving duet, but not a traditional sort. It's song by the two wives to their husbands, each with completely opposite lyrics, all within the same scene, as we move back-and-forth between two bedrooms.

The title song is very lively and serves a particular plot function quite effectively -- it's used as a montage that starts the group out when first meeting, through rehearsals in the alleys and train stations, and then finally when they become a polished act. It also serves as a leit motif recurring through the show. Several reviewers found the song to be endless, but they miss the point of it. Not just in function, but in substance. It's what the show is about. Besides which, it's a terrific song.

There's also a very tricky aspect to a score like this, when trying to incorporate songs from a musical act show-within-the-show. If not handled well, these non-plot songs can stop the evening cold. Harmony needs such songs, to demonstrate the group in action, but handles them very well. Several have a subtext to the plot going on around them -- like "Come to the Fatherland," performed with the Harmonists as controlled marionettes on strings, singing about the delights of the Third Reich. The result is very funny on the surface and quite uncomfortable and profoundly sad underneath. And then there are a couple numbers from their act that are simply so hilariously staged that they can't help but demonstrate how the group got to be so popular, notably "How Can We Serve You, Madame?" (full of double-entendres, sung by elegant waiters who end up in their skivvies) and the virtuosic "Hungarian Rhapsody #20" -- much in the style of what the real Comedian Harmonists often did, create the sound of an orchestra vocally, in this case a parody of Franz Liszt's 19 other rhapsodies.

I must almost mention the "11 o'clock" number, a powerful song called "Threnody," sung by the character of Josef (nicknamed 'Rabbi," since he had once been...well, a rabbi) who periodically steps out of the show to narrate it as the last surviving member. In "Threnody" he faces a situation tormenting to him, whether it was his mere fate, tragic doom or blessing to remember all that happened to them. Though the singer, Shayne Kennon, also gets to sing the big hit, "Every Single Day," it's the roaring reaction of the audience here that is even greater.

The cast was very good, at times wonderful, and each get their moments, though no one really leaped out to me as standalone special, which is fine, since it's about a group, though Kennon has the most to do, narrating it as he does -- and he does well. The others Harmonists (who, to be clear, each do come across individually) are Matt Bailey, Will Blum, Chris Dwan, Will Taylor, and Douglas Williams) And the two leading women are played by Hannah Corneau (the aforementioned Ruth, a composite of a few women) and Leigh Ann Larkin (the real-life Mary).

I would have loved to have seen a bit more conflict between the group, but it's there and very hard to miss (though a few critics did). But perhaps this is one of the times when having a scene be more direct rather than suggestive or hinting would work to the show's advantage. I wasn't particularly bothered that none of the characters change all that greatly over time -- in part because when you're in a group, people tend to create a wall to protect their place in it -- but perhaps a little more change would flesh things out a touch. But ultimately, it's the group that changes, more so than the individuals, as it's forced to react to the crushing conditions around them.

My biggest character quibble is that I found the character of Ruth a bit too loud and strident. Whether that's as written or performance, I don't know. In fairness, if any character has the right to be unrelentingly strident, it's Ruth -- a Jewish woman trying to reform Germany in the midst of growing Naziism. Indeed, Hannah Corneau has a great moment after a concert which has been interrupted by Brown Shirts, and a Nazi colonel fan and his wife come backstage afterwards for autographs.

My sense from having seen the show 17 years ago is that the opening was more drawn out in that original incarnation, as we learn more about the members and their development. I could be wrong about that, but if so it would work well doing so here. But having said that, much as it might help, there's something to be said for the vibrancy here of doing it all as the one, long, "Harmony" montage that carries you away with enthusiasm.

Overall, I liked the direction by Tony Speciale, particularly in the larger production pieces. There were places where things do get a little static, mainly in the more dramatic moments, but it didn't cause my interest to waver. The ending is changed slightly from that initial production, and for the better. Then, as I recall, it was split between reminiscences between 'Rabbi' and Mary, who had been his wife. Here, it's more focused with just 'Rabbi.' That adds power to the climax, though it gets a bit talky.

What I most admire about the end is that Sussman and Manilow didn't try to give it a spin to make things happy. The end isn't happy. But the authors make it so that things aren't tragic for the group -- rather, what they come up with is substantive and effectively moving and satisfying, concluding with the lovely, "Stars in the Night." Oddly, the real -- further -- ending is more upbeat than the show. The Comedian Harmonists weren't as forgotten as the characters feel. There was a successful 4-hour TV documentary about them in Germany in 1975 (when all but one of the group were still alive). A very good award-winning film, The Harmonists, was released in 1997, which was named Outstanding Feature Film at the German Film Awards. The group even won an Echo Award in 1998 from the country's record academy, Deutsche Phonoakademie -- Germany's version of the Grammys. And now this musical. So the Comedian Harmonists are far from forgotten in their home.

I'm not sure what the future for Harmony holds, or what the plans are by the creators and producers. What occurred to me afterwards is that while Broadway or touring might be among their thoughts -- it would make a terrific production in Germany. I say that not just because that's where the Comedian Harmonists are best known, but there actually is a fairly solid stage musical foundation there, largely through a group called Stage Entertainment, which is even becoming a growing place for out of town Broadway tryouts. The musical version of Rocky which just opened on Broadway to actually-good reviews began life in Hamburg. A lush musical based on Rebecca was set to open on Broadway, after having begun production in Stuttgart, before infamously becoming embroiled in a bizarre producer/money meltdown. When Tarzan left Broadway after only a very modest run, it gained new life in Germany when the show was tweaked and re-staged. I also wrote here (several times, in fact) about the very entertaining musical Hinterm Horizont that I saw in Berlin, produced as well by Stage Entertainment.

So...who knows what the future life is of Harmony. Both Manilow and Sussman say they're not looking ahead and are just thrilled to focus on these two new productions in Atlanta and L.A. that brought Harmony back to well-deserved life. It runs at the Ahmanson through April 21, 2014.

There's more work they can do on it. But what they have already, in these early stages, is a wonderful evening in the theater.

If you'd like to hear much of the score -- I can't embed it, but here are long excerpts that play back-to-back in this Soundcloud.com music player. Each song selection is about a minute-and-a-half. Just let it keep running when a song finishes, and the next will start up.

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To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.