When Barry Manilow writes a melody, forget about Stephen Sondheim. Or, for that matter, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers.
Manilow’s lush, soaring and very familiar-sounding tunes recall the work of Franz Lehar. There’s logic to this musical connection between the composers of “Mandy” and “The Merry Widow Waltz,” respectively, since Manilow’s new (but very long-gestating) Broadway musical is set in the years 1927-1935. “Harmony,” with lyrics and book by Bruce Sussman, opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
In 1927, six male vocalists joined forces in Berlin, Germany, to form a singing group that became internationally famous despite hampering themselves with the name Comedian Harmonists. They played Carnegie Hall. They made several recordings and movies in Germany. They even appeared with Josephine Baker when she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies.
But that name, the Comedian Harmonists, not only proved difficult for emcees in the 1930s to pronounce — it also mucks up the opening moments of “Harmony.” Sussman devotes way too much time (not to mention very unfunny jokes) to the name’s innate clumsiness.
Even more problematic: Sussman has the difficult task of introducing the six characters that make up the Comedian Harmonists. The book writer of “Jersey Boys” had it easy; the Lettermen made do with only four singers.
The result is that only three of the Comedian Harmonists emerge as vivid characters in the first act of “Harmony.” Erich (Eric Peters) has the advantage of wearing a monocle (costumes by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie) and looks every bit the blond poster boy for the Aryan Race as soon to be defined by Hitler’s emerging National Socialist Party. Not his real name, Chopin (Blake Roman) has the advantage of being in love with a Bolshevik firebrand, Ruth, who always grabs the spotlight because she’s played by the enormously empathetic Julie Benko, fresh from being Fanny Brice at matinees at the recently shuttered revival of “Funny Girl.” And then there’s Rabbi, who has the advantage of being played by not one but two actors, Danny Kornfeld and Chip Zien.
The actors Sean Bell, Zal Owen and Steven Telsey play the other three Comedian Harmonists, but don’t really emerge as strong characters until late in the second act when Zien narrates what happened to each of the six after the Nazis took full control of Germany. Three of the singers were Jewish.
Nazis and nightclubs. It’s a potent toxic combo that brings to mind “Cabaret”; plus, there’s Beowulf Boritt’s sleek Art Deco box set that suggests the concept for Joe Masteroff’s musical-within-a-musical book for that John Kander and Fred Ebb classic.
Sussman’s take on similar material isn’t quite so arresting. He has Zien play the older Rabbi, looking back at events that he narrates. Zien also shows up as a variety of other characters, including Richard Strauss and Albert Einstein, who happened to catch the show at the New Amsterdam after escaping from Germany. Zien’s old Rabbi often finds himself in a one-way conversation with Kornfeld’s young Rabbi, and the two actors not only look alike despite a few decades difference in age, they also have a tendency to oversell any song they happen to be singing.
When Zien isn’t giving us the Wikipedia history of the Comedian Harmonists, there is a faux documentary projected on the back wall of Boritt’s set to deliver the Nazis’ latest antisemitic decree. “Harmony” ultimately packs a punch because the history of that period continues to shock no matter how many times this story is told.
What remains open to question, under Warren Carlyle’s splashy direction, is the appeal of the real Comedian Harmonists. An advertisement outside the Barrymore Theatre claims that the group was as “popular as the Beatles,” but their memory was erased by the Nazis — until now.
“Harmony” doesn’t always serve that memory well. In one number, “How Can I Serve You, Madame,” the sextet is dressed up as waiters but, for some reason, forgot to put on their trousers. They then proceed to serve a couple while essentially waterboarding the male diner. His female companion looks on, not in horror but with a delighted amusement at her date being senselessly doused.
If ever a musical number deserved a spot on the walls of Joe Allen restaurant, “How Can I Serve You, Madame” is it.