Off-Broadway Review: HARMONY (Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage)

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by Tony Frankel on April 19, 2022

in Theater-New York

PUT YOURSELF IN HARMONY‘S WAY

I can’t remember the last time I have been so entranced with a new musical. And while Harmony may be having its New York premiere in the Off-Broadway house that brought us the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, I’ll eat my kishkes if this winner doesn’t go to Broadway. Composer Barry Manilow and librettist/lyricist Bruce Sussman’s entertaining, surprisingly melancholic new musical depicts the real-life story of the all-male singing ensemble, the Comedian Harmonists. With buttery, close harmonies, an excellent cast, and Warren Carlyle‘s fluid direction and choreography, this unusually dichotomous musical lovingly follows the Interwar Period boy band through their formation in the late 1920s to the peak of their international stardom, and then their sharp demise resulting from the fascist censorship of the Nazi regime. Each member will be pulled in his own direction for the sake of survival and self-preservation.

Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Zal Owen, Steven Telsey, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld

Hailing from Germany, the Comedian Harmonists rose to fame toward the end of the Weimar era as the burgeoning Nazi Party loomed over Deutschland. Their pleasant harmonics, good looks, and charismatic, cheeky performance style was surely a welcome antidote for the distraction-seeking audiences who were in the midst of wide-spread economic depression. Since little is left of their recordings and films, this musical triumphantly displays what we all missed: the first act is rife with numbers that recreate the Harmonists’ style. Manilow’s music is both reminiscent of this vocal group while being breathtakingly original for a musical. His arrangements, both vocal (with John O’Neill) and orchestral, also manage to be immediately alluring and reminiscent of the Weimar era.

Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, Steven Telsey, Danny Kornfeld

For the most part, Sussman’s lyrics and uniquely structured book — crafted like a memory play — are entertaining and emotionally moving. He has fixed many of the book’s problems that plagued the production I saw at The Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. back in 2014. His decision to go with a bell-shaped plot that starts and ends on an introspective note remains smartly refreshing. He avoids false enthusiasm that most traditional musicals try to pass off as art, and instead focuses on the beauty to be found in honesty and realism, which rarely co-exists with Musical Theater.

Blake Roman, Eric Peters, Zal Owen, Sean Bell, Steven Telsey, Danny Kornfeld

Manilow’s lovingly crafted score, a major draw, is a well-balanced mix of modern and period elements marked by his signature style. Some numbers are fun and catchy, some are beautiful plays on traditional Hebrew music, and others are compelling torch songs. O’Neill and his 8-person band, situated house right, sound amazing executing Doug Walters‘ smart orchestrations, but here’s hoping we get a real harp when this moves to Broadway.

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell

I applaud Harmony as it captures the group’s journey in two contrasting acts. The first is in an old-school styled, lushly produced Rogers and Hart-esque American musical full of hope, love, friendship, humor, catchy music, and a touch of slapstick (although devastation is foreshadowed throughout). The storyline is dominated by dark plot turns in Act II. Bravery and solidarity in the face of adversity is pitted against loss and fear. Harmony tackles tough socio-political issues of the day — economic disenfranchisement, senseless anti-Semitism, cultural censorship, mass complacency (sound familar? Some things never change) — through an undeniably sad narrative. The production ends on a somber, bittersweet note that stands in stark contrast to its earlier homage to the optimism-laden musical theater themes of the 1930s.

Chip Zien, Ana Hoffman, Sierra Boggess, Danny Kornfeld

It’s a bold choice to end a musical with a tear-shedding confessional, a risky move that had some people upset back in the eighties when Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods’ second act left them devastated; and look how often that musical is produced now. But Harmony is about truth, and proudly reminds us how hatred and greed lead to horrible leaders (sound familiar?).

Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Steven Telsey, Eric Peters

In real life, the group of six was comprised of pianist Erwin “Chopin” Bootz, bass singer Bobby Biberti, baritone Roman “Rabbi” Cykowski, tenor buffo Harry Frommerman, and tenors Erich Collin and Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff. Their voices blended to create soft and light vocal textures, which they often enhanced with comedic voice effects.

Playing the Comedian Harmonists are Danny Kornfield (Rabbi), Mathew Mucha (covering for Zal Owen at our performance as Harry, who formed the group), Steven Telsey (Lesh), Eric Peters (Erich), Blake Roman (Chopin), and Sean Bell (Bobby); they blanket the audience in tonal warmth and complex coloring while delivering blazingly energized performances. Each triple-threat member sings beautifully and acts brightly, while fostering a tight-knit chemistry that reinforces the bonds shared by the men they portray.

Chip Zien

National treasure Chip Zien plays our narrator, Rabbi as an older man, with endearing warmth and boundless effervescence. He eschews that clichéd cheery, old-Jewish guy stereotype with a deeply focused sincerity and gleaming stage presence. Zien also plays, among others, Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein and even Marlene Dietrich (!), a device that reminds us we are reliving the scenario through Rabbi’s brain, a conceit that also helps to add levity to the sad tale.

Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld

Seeing Danny Kornfield and Zien side by side as the Rabbis is a testament to Jamibeth Margolis’s casting. Kornfield’s amazing performance and wonderful voice are most memorable. As Lesh, Steven Telsey’s on-point comedic timing and sweet, earnest charm make him an easy audience favorite. As Biberti, Sean Bell‘s powerful, deep-bellied bass adds rich consonance. Eric Peters can damn well sing all night in a solo show and I would be first in line — what a gorgeously strong tenor. As Chopin, Blake Roman gets one of the best ballads of the night, “In This World”, and my god what a voice. Mathew Mucha filled in remarkably well (never doubt an understudy!).

Sierra Boggess

Playing the wives of Rabbi and Chopin, Sierra Boggess as Mary and Jessie Davidson as Ruth are both passionate and powerful vocalists, blending hauntingly well on “Where You Go,” a ballad that underscores being in a mixed marriage (Jew and gentile). Boggess is simply amazing: she never overplays the drama and her vocals put a songbird to shame. Davidson is perfect as the protesting self-proclaimed “Jew bitch,” but this character needs some mirth to round out the drama. Indeed, Carlyle would serve the show well to lessen the overwrought performances towards the end of Act II. Even Zien could stand to lighten his grief, although he will surely bring tears to your eyes. I wonder that Sussman could also add some funnier lines in Act II — Jews are known for bringing humor to the most awful of circumstances.

Jessie Davidson

Set designer Beowulf Borritt worked wonders with a set of mirrored panels on which batwin + robins’ effective multimedia put us on a moving train or backstage at Carnegie Hall. Vintage aesthetics influence Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie’s faithful costume design (the imposing outfit of a Nazi Standartenführer is a work of art). Carlyle’s broad, classic, and flirtatious choreography bring to life a Copacabana-esque nightclub act, in which Ana Hoffman shines as Josephine Baker. You will be treated to several gorgeously executed dramatic moments cloaked in 1930s’ Hollywood-style spectacle numbers, aided by Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer’s sumptuous light design.

Sean Bell, Barrett Riggins, Eric Peters, Danny Kornfeld, Ana Hoffman,
Matthew Mucha, Steven Telsey, Shayne Kennon, Blake Roman, Zal Owen

I suppose Harmony may have its detractors — those who scoff, “I come to the theater to forget my troubles.” Don’t listen to them. It is so very easy to fall in love with this musical. 

photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

Harmony
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
Edmond J. Safra Hall (310 seats)
Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl in Battery Park
opened April 13, 2022 EXTENDED to May 15, 2022
(reviewed April 19) | 2 hours, 30 minutes
ends on May 8, 2022
for tickets, visit NYTF or Ovation Tix

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