Harmony -- A New Musical
When crooner Barry Manilow teamed up with Broadway lyricist Bruce Sussman to bring "Harmony -- A New Musical" into creation, they sought to uncover a hidden gem of pop music history.
Based on a true story, "Harmony" details the explosive rise of a six-man vocal harmony group, The Comedian Harmonists, in the backdrop of the Great Depression leading into the Third Reich. Our trusty narrator, "Rabbi" Josef Cykowski, plops the audience in the middle of a pivotal moment in the Comedian Harmonists’ careers: a performance at Carnegie Hall. You see, in New York, they had the opportunity to stay and potentially become an NBC feature.
The action moves into a sort of meta-space, where the rest of the group squabbles over where the story "really" started. After some vaudevillian antics, the gang agrees that harmony, naturally, is what brought them together. Cue the main theme, in classic Broadway style.
Smart and versatile backdrop projections that also help in the 28 location changes guide the audience through our introduction to the rest of the Harmonists: Harry, the quick-thinking dreamer who placed the fateful newspaper ad; Bobby, the dreamy bass who coolly keeps the group out of trouble during an encounter with the Standartenfuhrer; Erich, the well-off doctor who quits practicing to become a singer; Chopin, the hot-headed lyricist and pianist who marries Ruth, a communist organizer; and Lesh, the fun, flamboyant waiter always puffing on a cigarette and with genius comedic timing. Rabbi falls in love with and later marries a seamstress named Mary, whose dialogue is cleverly peppered with sewing references.
From their humble beginnings of rehearsing in train stations and busking in alleyways, the group lands a gig as backup singers for Marlene Dietrich, complete with a caricatured performance, and with expert choreography switching modes between backup singers and the main act.
Their talent catches the attention of Richard Strauss -- later appointed chairman of the Reich Music Chamber -- who gets the group a more prestigious gig. A last minute disaster forces the group to change their angle into a raucous comedy routine, catapulting them into international fame.
The juxtaposition of the Comedian Harmonists’ ascent to fame with the rise in power of the National-Socialist party mirrors the same combination of light-hearted comedy and emotional pain and darkness woven throughout the story. The coincidence of the group’s world tour with Hitler gaining ground serves as a blessing and a curse.
They were unaware, perhaps blissfully, of what awaited them upon their return to the Fatherland, but well-timed fame allowed the group an exemption, at first, to the Nuremburg laws. As Strauss becomes annexed by the state, so too are the Comedian Harmonists, originally used as propaganda to promote "good German music."
Sussman himself traveled to Germany for research, and both he and Manilow spent a year studying late ’20s and early ’30s music. The jaunty period music is nicely punctuated with traditional Jewish melodies and musical jokes, which are supported by a booming orchestral score.
Though the lyrics can be slightly tedious, the first act whets the audience’s palette for the Comedian Harmonists’ tight harmonies and playful antics, while skillfully building enough tension for the darker second act. At times heartwrenching, and at other times hilarious, "Harmony -- A New Musical" explores how love and friendship can blossom under political turmoil while giving the concept of "harmony" a multifaceted treatment: beyond the musical and moving into racial and political. The Alliance Theatre’s mission of "creating a powerful experience through shared theatre for diverse audiences" rings true in this production.
A truly masterful feat in acting, choreography, and musicianship, "Harmony" is a show you won’t want to miss.
"Harmony -- A New Musical" runs through Oct. 6 at the Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 404-733-5000 or visit alliancetheatre.org.