Love musical theatre? I don’t. I’ve seen a lot of musicals and for the most part, they’re not all that great. I’ve never been sold on the Ahmanson Theatre as a decent venue for live performance. And I’ve never found the slightest reason to pay attention to Barry Manilow. I’m happy to say I saw a show last night that changed my opinion on all three fronts: “Harmony,” the new Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical running through Apr. 13.
You’ve likely never heard of the Comedian Harmonists, a six-man vocal sextet, half-Jewish, half-Gentile, who were superstars in late 1920s and early ‘30s Germany until they were caught up in the maw of history. They were the subject of a fine film some years ago, but “Harmony” tells their story in a hugely entertaining fashion that captures the group’s magic, their humor and physicality, in a way the film did not.
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Manilow’s music and Sussman’s book and lyrics give you a sense of what it must have been like to see the group perform live—from a first-act number that has them clowning around in waiter’s jackets and boxer shorts after their tuxes have been stolen just before a gig, to a brilliant second-act parody of Liszt (“Hungarian Rhapsody #20”). The latter is followed by a wickedly satiric piece (“Come to the Fatherland!”) that brings to mind Spike Jones’ “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”
The show isn’t all fun and games, of course. In a sense it’s a pre-Holocaust musical about the Nazis’ war on pop culture and “degenerate art.” The frivolity is balanced by the gripping backstage drama that not only broke up the group but tore apart their lives. With a carefully-cast ensemble under Tony Speciale’s skilled direction and JoAnn M. Hunter’s sparkling choreography, it’s a class act all the way.
In short, this is a richly textured entertainment that’s a must-see for anyone who cares about musical theatre, culture, history or—quite frankly—humanity. And I take back everything I’ve ever said about the Ahmanson’s acoustics. It may not be Carnegie Hall (where the sextet performed in 1933) but it’s a fine place to see a show, especially when that show is “Harmony.” Call 213-972-4400 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Hit tip: Matthew Arkin, whose stunning performance in SCR’s “The Whale” you may recall from last season, releases his debut suspense novel, “In the Country of the Blind,” later this week. Details at www.matthewarkin.com.
More from Jordan:
Academy Award Losers, 1912-1939:
Great Performances in the Oscar Hall of Shame, Vol. 1
Dangerous entertainers: Smothers Brothers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez
Dean Martin and Edie Adams shows on DVD, Cinerama films restored
Visit my Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Jordan-R.- Young/e/B001K8E7NW
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