Take apart Barry Manilow’s new musical “Harmony,” which opened Monday night on Broadway, and you’ll find a lot to admire.
There’s the “Copacabana” singer’s catchy score that, while undeniably traditional, comes as a refreshing break from the soft pop, chart toppers and clinical university fare that dominates the boards nowadays.
Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street.
For theatergoers who demand that a Broadway show’s songs be instantly memorable, get ready — you’ll be humming the merry-go-round title number in your sleep.
And Manilow’s likable music accompanies an eye-opening chapter of largely forgotten history: that of a six-man German band made up of three Jewish men and three gentiles called the Comedian Harmonists, who achieved peak popularity in the 1930s during Adolph Hitler’s ascent.
The men made 12 movies, recorded a trove of albums and were the most popular song-and-dance act in Europe. Today, hardly anybody remembers them.
The Harmonists’ harrowing road to fame in an enflamed Europe is remembered by actor Chip Zien with pathos and intensity as Josef, a k a Rabbi, a group member who looks back on his life in old age. It’s a blistering performance from the 76-year-old actor, who is in fantastic voice.
Zien’s wealth of experience is paired with exciting young talent. Five of the Harmonists are making their Broadway debuts, and all of them are tremendous singers.
And, most poignantly, the show’s forceful rallying cry against anti-Semitism and for peaceful coexistence is relevant and movingly reverberates. How depressing it is to remember that the very same thing was being said last season about the musical “Parade” and Tom Stoppard’s play “Leopoldstadt.”
The problem is that while “Harmony” is about a sextet of singers whose voices blend like milk and coffee, its elements do not similarly fuse into a cohesive and satisfying musical.
The show, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, has been tinkered with by Manilow and lyricist/book-writer Bruce Sussman for nearly 30 years, but on its largest stage yet it still doesn’t quite work.
Structural flaws that were mostly forgivable when the production played the more intimate Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown last year are detrimentally exacerbated by Broadway’s imposing size.
The musical, therefore, is lopsided. Act One, charming enough previously, is now longwinded and poorly paced — gobbled up by the 1,058-seat Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Act Two, when the conditions Germany rapidly deteriorate and the main characters’ lives are imperiled, packs a punch, fills every inch of the room and is worth the wait. But getting there takes long, aimless stretches, encyclopedias of exposition and hardly any strong character development to speak of.
We begin in 1927, Berlin when we’re first introduced to the Comedian Harmonists: Josef (Danny Kornfeld) a former Rabbi from Poland (and Zien’s character’s younger self), med student Erich (Eric Peters), whorehouse pianist Chopin (Blake Roman), an opera bass named Bobby (Sean Bell), Bulgarian Lesh (Steven Telsey) and an actor named Harry (Zal Owen).
Before you can say, “do re mi,” they’re international superstars. Star-is-born stories reliably entertain and capture an audience’s imagination and hearts. “Harmony” illogically skips straight to star-is-star, robbing the tale of some much-needed lightness before the horrors of reality set in.
Even as the Hitler rises to power, and hate toward Jewish people becomes widespread in Germany, the Harmonists are allowed by the Nazis to continue touring around the world. Encouraged, even.
“You are a great asset to our cause,” a Nazi official tells them. “Our ambassadors of goodwill.”
The group, disturbed by this and not content with sitting quietly, segues into performing satirical protest songs in international concerts that rankle the Nazis.
Complicating matters further, Rabbi is married to a non-Jewish woman named Mary (Sierra Boggess) and Chopin’s wife Ruth (Julie Benko) is an outspoken Jewish activist who often finds herself in thorny situations.
The group’s silly songs — a style that’s not as funny tothe modern sense of humor, but amusing all the same — are gorgeously sung. However it’s Manilow’s ballads and duets, such as Mary and Ruth’s haunting “Where You Go,” that shake the audience.
So does the smooth “In This World,” crooned by the velvet-voiced Roman, who early in his career already radiates star quality..
Zien’s climactic “Threnody,” a guilt-ridden explosion of regret that eventually gives way to forgiveness, is “Harmony”’s emotional highlight.
Before that shattering number, it takes a while for his role to click. Including a narrator, especially during the first act, has the effect of turning the musical into a dusty old photo rather than what it should be: a riveting tale of artists trying to survive and be true to themselves in a decaying, inhospitable world.
But when Zien lets loose on “Threnody,” we’re so grateful he and Rabbi are there.
That’s the central takeaway of “Harmony”: not everything is harmonious, but nonetheless there is much that’s worth listening to.