‘Harmony’ review: Barry Manilow’s musical has flaws, but stellar singing

Barry Manilow’s new musical “Harmony” could begin with the lyric: His name was Josef! He was a rabbi!

The melody from “Copacabana” isn’t found here — this isn’t a jukebox show — but the tunefulness the singer is known for abounds. It’s some of the better quality stage scores of the theater season.

Manilow’s musical, which opened Wednesday night off-Broadway (the composer tested positive for COVID and sadly couldn’t attend), has a lot going for it. The drama is about a little-known, fascinating piece of World War II history that will have audiences racing to Google at intermission. Manilow’s score, with lyrics by Bruce Sussman, is pretty and occasionally touching. And all of the singers are sensational. 

Still, there is some discord.

Theater review

2 hour and 30 minutes with one intermission. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl. Through May 8.

“Harmony,” which has been floating around the US for more than three decades, tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular German jokey music group in the 1920s that was almost lost to time after Hitler rose to power.

The group played Carnegie Hall and palled around with Albert Einstein, Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich. They toured all over the world, sold millions of records and made some seven films. Three of the members were Jewish or of Jewish descent, while the other three were gentiles. 

Josef (Danny Kornfeld) is called Rabbi because he left the Torah to go on tour; he’s joined by a blood-hating surgeon (Eric Peters), a whorehouse pianist (Blake Roman), an opera bass (Sean Bell), a Bulgarian (Steven Telsey) and an actor (Zal Owen).

The Comedian Harmonists are played by Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters and Sean Bell.
Julieta Cervantes

They all sing sublimely, together and apart — and are formidable yuksters. But it’s Roman, who’s just out of school, that’s the most incredible find. He has a soothing, soulful solo in Act 2 that’s unfortunately cut short. It could’ve happily gone on forever.

The complexity of the show arrives when German Jews are stripped of their rights throughout the country, and Jewish music is banned, but Hitler allows the Comedian Harmonists to keep performing anyway. The group, the Third Reich decides, can act as propaganda for Nazi Germany abroad.

While the musical’s greatest asset is the sextet of musicians, the real lead is veteran actor Chip Zien playing Rabbi (and some other hilarious surprise characters) in old age.

The narrator role is a new addition to the show, directed by Warren Carlyle, presumably to lend some gravitas and perspective — and Zien is in excellent form. But the role’s inclusion both spoils his character’s eventual fate (he’s obviously not an angel) and gives everything a stuffy air of nostalgia. We’re always looking back.

Chip Zien narrates "Harmony" as Rabbi in old age.
Chip Zien narrates “Harmony” as Rabbi in old age.
Julieta Cervantes

The book, by Manilow’s longtime collaborator Sussman, also tends to jump to extremes. A large portion of the first act is spent introducing us to the six Comedian Harmonists in a catchy but long opening number. They then have a blink-and-you-miss-it sequence of being unknowns and — hey presto! — are suddenly world-famous. The Borscht Belt jokes throughout are fun, but there are a few too many. 

Two roles that could use more meat are the wives, played by Sierra Boggess and Jessie Davidson. Conflicted about their husbands’ roles in Germany’s moral downfall, they’re potentially fascinating. Yet, however gorgeous their music is, the parts come off as slight.

As does the design. Beowulf Boritt’s set of TV screens and minimal furniture surely is hamstrung by a downtown budget. It would be nice to see something more transportive and evocative.

So “Harmony”’s long journey continues. But with Manilow’s fine music, and this extraordinary company of actors, it’s worth the extra mileage.

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