BWW Reviews: HARMONY Is Discordant in LA Debut
The Comedian Harmonists were an internationally famous, all-male German harmony ensemble that performed between 1928 and 1934, and became one of the most successful musical groups in Europe before World War II. Consisting of six men, the 'harmonists' had a wide-ranging repertoire, performing everything from classical to folk music to covers of popular music at the time, such as "Stormy Weather" and even Disney's "Whistle While You Work." With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, however, life became increasingly difficult for the group, given that three of their members were Jewish (or of Jewish decent) and another one had married a Jewish woman. Eventually their music was banned, and they were ultimately prevented from performing in public.
The combination of their incredible, popular success, with the tragic turn of historical events that deeply affected the group given their cultural make-up, should provide the kind of rich source material for a truly emotional, blockbuster piece of musical theatre.
Sadly, "Harmony," the musical inspired by the famous sextet, written by Barry Manilow (music) and Bruce Sussman (lyrics & book) falls short in bringing this incredible tale to life. The show has been gestating for two decades, and shows signs of that age. It had a 1997 run at the La Jolla Playhouse, and a planned 2004 Broadway run was stymied when the lead producer fell short in capitalizing the production. Years of legal battles followed over who owned the rights to the show, and Mr. Manilow was eventually triumphant, which lead to a 2013 staging in Atlanta, and the one that opened last night here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre.
While some revisions have been made since those initial stagings (which received mixed reviews), the show feels almost like a revival of an 80's musical, complete with a synth-laden sound and orchestrations that bring to mind the tepid sounds of a Frank Wildhorn musical. It feels as if the authors did not use the time when the show was stuck in litigation to re-examine and re-asses the show, and truly hone in on what would make it work as a piece of musical theatre. (And there are plenty of other musicals they could have looked to for inspiration, such as "Cabaret", which does a great job as a musical set in this time period with similar themes.)
Perhaps most shocking is that fact that the musical never actually uses any of the songs that made this group so famous. A quick search of Spotify or Amazon.com yields rich results, so it's somewhat baffling as to why Manilow and Sussman (or even the director), choose not to feature any of the 'Harmonists' hits. Even in the program notes, bookwriter Sussman states, "The pièce de résistance of their act was the overture to The Barber of Seville... the lights were turned out, and you'd hear The Barber of Seville, and it sounded like a chamber orchestra playing. The lights would slowly come up, and it was six guys replicating all those instruments." That is something that would have been an amazing piece of stagecraft, not to mention would truly help the audience understand why this group was so phenomenal and successful, as opposed to just being told so by the show's defacto narrator.
I understand the authors' desire to NOT simply create a jukebox musical (especially given their songwriting talents), but one could easily have used the Comedian Harmonists' songs for their "performance" scenes, and completed those with the Manilow/Sussman original score to tell and propel the group's 'behind the scenes' story forward. This show is truly a labor of love for Manilow and Sussman, and both were highly emotional in the curtain call on opening night, and rightly so. It has been a long journey, and it's obvious they have poured their hearts into the show. One simply wishes the end result were better.
The writers' liberty with the group extends to some of the secondary characters of the show, namely the women in the men's lives. The program notes that the character of Ruth is a composite character - and it shows. She comes across as rather two-dimensional and almost cliché in her representation of a revolutionary wife of one of the 'Harmonists.' While every artist has the right to take creative licenses with their source material to emphasize certain elements or to help clarify narrative, the addition of this character didn't elevate the story or provide any more a heart-breaking element that didn't already exist in this tragic tale. Which is an overwhelming sentiment throughout the evening, with the author's contributions neither elevating nor enhancing the story to the next level.
That being said, the story itself is wildly fascinating, and keeps you interested throughout the evening, and if anything, you'll want to learn even more about this group.
Also buoying the evening are the fantastic performances. While some of the acting comes across as a bit over-eager, sometimes vaudevillian in its presentation, the vocals sounds of the Comedian Harmonists are truly joy inducing and provides the show with its biggest jolt of energy.
For the support of the show, the set design by Tobin Ost (enhanced by projection design by Darrel Maloney) deserves noting, as do a few scenes by director, Tony Speciale. While often the staging came across as somewhat static, the numbers "How Can I Serve You, Madame?" and "Come to the Fatherland" are worth highlighting for their inventiveness.
Putting aside the criticism for a moment, many in the opening night audience were swept up in the story, music and performances, even moving some to tears. And as I noted above, it is a compelling, engaging story that deftly holds your attention throughout the evening.
"Harmony" runs through April 13 at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre, with performances Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1p and 6:30 pm. (Check the CenterTheatreGroup.org website for exceptions to this schedule.) Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center (135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles).