Three decades before The Temptations erupted out of Motown to wow America with their smooth harmony and their graceful, synchronized dance moves, there were the Comedian Harmonists---six men in Berlin who in the late 1920s and ’30s became the toast of Europe. They had beautiful voices and carefully synchronized moves too, but their moves were herky jerky and designed to amuse their audiences.
These six men are the stars of the musical Harmony, now appearing in a Broadway-sized ensemble of 21 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Barry Manilow, who wrote the music, and his collaborator of 40 years, Bruce Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics, have produced a thoroughly entertaining play.
Two plays, in fact.
The first act is concerned with the formation of the group, each of whom respond to an ad from an unemployed actor, Harry Frommerman (Matt Bailey). Harry is soon joined by a Bulgarian singing waiter, Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff (Will Blum); an opera star, “Bobby” Biberti (Douglas Williams); a would-be doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood, Erich Collin (Chris Dwan); a piano-player, Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor); and a former rabbi, Josef Roman Cykowski (Shayne Kennon), who confesses that he joined the group because he wanted to sing something that wasn’t always in a minor key. These are the men who, Manilow says, were “the Beatles of Germany” in their time.
Though it didn’t appear to matter in the beginning, three of the men were Christian and three were Jewish.
And so we follow them as they polish their act, move up to classier venues, and fall in love. Eventually, in the Berlin Synagogue in 1931, Rabbi marries Mary, who isn’t Jewish, and Chopin, who also isn’t Jewish, marries Ruth, who is.
Then, after several years of international acclaim, including in New York at Carnegie Hall, the looming terrors emanating from Germany persuade them to return home.
But before we turn to Act Two, we must pause to applaud the delicious choreography of JoAnn M. Hunter. Her contribution made a triumph out of what would have been a mediocre musical, if the music were all we had to go on. Although Sussman’s lyrics were bright and sophisticated, especially in the hopeful “This is Our Time” number, Manilow’s melodies were immediately forgettable.
In Act Two, however, Harmony becomes a completely different play. In sharp contrast to the over-long plot setup and some atonal songs that weigh down the first act, the second act turns dark instead. The Nazis explode onto the scene, with dire consequences for the group, as well as for the nation. Their fanatic condemnation of what they called “degenerate art” and their methodical elimination of all things Jewish eventually results in the Harmonists being forced to disband and flee the country.
Nevertheless, in spite of the darkness of the subject matter, this second act is much superior to the first. It is well-directed by Tony Speciale and is extraordinarily moving, as when Mary sings the Old Testament story of Ruth in a song titled “Where You Go.” And at the end, when Rabbi, living in California in 1988, tells what became of all the others, the mood is intensified by a huge photo of the original six projected on a screen in the background.
Which brings me to the other remarkable feature of this production: Tobin Ost’s sets. They include, among other things, bridges and flashing trains and a complete change of seasons, all imaginative and full of life. The opening night audience loved it, and so, I think, will you.
Harmony can be seen Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through April 13 at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. There are several exceptions in the performance dates and times, so it’s best you call the theater at (213) 972-4400 for clarification as well as tickets.