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Still searching for the Comedian Harmonists

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"Harmony" at the Ahmanson Theatre

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Who were those masked funny Germans?

Wish I knew better. The picture is so blasted fuzzy. After spending more than two and a half hours in the company of the young men who called themselves the Comedian Harmonists, I can reliably recount that -profession-wise, at least - one had been a waiter, another a doctor, an opera singer, a pianist, a musical arranger and a former Rabbi. We learn that a few of their ranks were Jews who lived and performing in Berlin from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s when being Jewish was dangerous, that they might have reached even greater heights (or happiness) had they not run up against restrictions imposed by the Third Reich, that Hitler’s rise to power laid waste to their professional as well as their personal lives.

We know that the Comedian Harmonists were quite, quite famous; we’re talking Beatles comparable.

And if “Harmony,” the recounting of their story via the music of Barry Manilow and book and lyrics of Bruce Sussman are to be believed, we know that the six members of the Comedian Harmonists and the women they loved, favored impassioned, muscular songs that, more often than not, conclude with arms extended, fists thrust skyward. (This, presumably, during their off hours, when they were singing for emotional reasons, not when performing gigs as The Comedian Harmonists ).

From the production of “Harmony” co-produced by Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, we know that these six actors work in glorious sync and have some serious performance chops whenever the music kicks in. Also that choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter is going places if she isn’t already there.

Alas, the production directed by Tony Speciale, while fluidly staged and impeccably crafted, is a bit of an empty vessel. We’re cued to care, to swoon as the boys croon about hope and destiny. When the largely stick figure love interests belt about destiny and the perils of standing by their men, it’s supposed to matter.

Too often, we don't and it doesn't. “Harmony” follows both a 1977 filmed documentary and had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, the same year as the semi fictionalized film “The Harmonists.” On film, of course, the Harmonists sing less and reveal more.On stage, something is missing.

With a few exceptions, Sussman’s book embraces the group’s in-and-out-of-the-shadows conceit. That too many people have never heard of the Harmonists – despite their fame – is unusual and, certainly “Harmony” offers a couple of strategic clues as to why they vanished from the entertainment zeitgeist. It appears that this disappearance signals a socio-cultural tragedy. As constructed, Rabbi (played by Shayne Kennon), the oldest surviving member, is tapped to share the memories and finally tell the tale. Which, reluctantly, he does.

But for pity’s sake, why the reluctance? What does an eightysomething cantor living safely in California in 1988 now have to fear? If Mary (Leigh Ann Larkin) the gentile seamstress who become his wife, is to be believed, Rabbi has a history of running away from things, often without any sort of provocation. He’ll have a kindred spirit, then, in fellow Harmonist Erich Collin (Chris Dwan) whose wealthy parents fully expect him to be a doctor.

Before they hit it big, the Harmonists plied their considerable musical talents in a series of train stations (rendered with nice austerity by scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost), drawing admirers. Their first major gig at Club Cinderella in 1929 has them impersonating (not playing) musical instruments behind a curtain and snarking away while a far-less-talented Marlene Dietrich (Lauren Elaine Taylor) vamps comically away. The name of the song: “Lost in the Shadows” of course. You might even think that a vocal group with three Jewish members, trying to achieve fame in pre-war Germany, might feel the push-pull tension of going for the glory vs. trying to remain behind that curtain, hidden in those shadows.

You would be wrong. Most, if not all are our lads are courting fame which sets them on collision courses with Ruth (Hannah Corneau), the Jewish social activist wife of Harmonist Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor) and later with Nazi officers in encounters that feel scripted and predictable. Warnings are issued. Alliances are formed. Given the pre-war backdrop, the two mixed marriages and presumably the vaulting ambition of those hungry Harmonists, their tale is surprisingly betrayal-free.

“Jersey Boys” - which had no Nazis – juggled four band members, each of whom took a turn telling the story. The problem with “Harmony” is not so much an unwieldy number of leads as a limited book. The tale pivots substantially on the reluctant Rabbi, but Kennon – a good singer and an appealing enough actor – doesn’t easily carry the load. Tall, rangy and too good looking to play a nebbishy coward, Kennon’s Rabbi radiates neither star power nor singled out angst. Larkin, also beautifully voiced, fares slightly better although Mary's arc is to fret and say no until, one song later (“Every Single Day”, sung by Rabbi) she says yes.

The rest of the group are if not exactly interchangeable, not particularly fleshed out either. Douglas Williams’s Bobby Biberti is a fame-seeking former opera singer with a mighty basso at his disposal. Ari Leshnikoff (Will Blum), the tenor, is the group’s high-voiced clown, offering a hint of comic relief. Group organizer Harry Frommerman (Matt Bailey) and Bootz turn out to be in love with the same woman (the aforementioned Ruth Stern). Is this a problem? It is not.

When grouped up, the lads are superb vocally and physically. Manilow and music director John O'Neill take them across a range of songs – waltzes, satires, comic songs which the sextet negotiate with real finesse. A number like “How Can I serve You Madame,” has the trouser-free Harmonists playing waiters and sporting all manner of phallic food. It bears little resemblance tonally to the far more scabrous “Come to the Fatherland,” which the Harmonists, this time attached to puppet strings, perform in Copenhagen. Say what you will about Manilow, where songs are concerned, the man can stretch and Sussman – Manilow’s long timer collaborator - knows how to make lyrics playful or heartfelt as the occasion dictates.

Alas, they can’t solve the story of the Harmonists. What lies beneath the “comedian” part remains stubbornly hidden.

“Harmony” plays 8 p.m. Tue. – Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through April 13 at 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $30-$105. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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