By Manning Harris
Everything about the Alliance Theatre’s new musical “Harmony” is huge: the big name creators (Barry Manilow, music; Bruce Sussman, book and lyrics), the cast, the glorious set and costumes, the fine orchestra, the riveting true story it tells. “Harmony” will run only until October 6, and although a little fine-tuning here and there is inevitable, this show feels Broadway-bound, despite the gentle demurring from its creators. If you want to see it, I wouldn’t delay getting tickets.
“Harmony” tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German sextet who rose to international fame in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Unfortunately, their ascent coincided with the rise of the Nazis; and the Harmonists had Jewish and non-Jewish performers. This was unacceptable, and by 1934 the group was banned.
What interested Mr. Manilow, as Bret Love reported in the program, was that “they were so huge…the Beatles of their generation—the first boy band. How did we not know about this group?” And they were also funny—real vaudevillians with astonishing versatility. If “Harmony” is a success, that “fame gap” will certainly be diminished.
Mr. Sussman was quoted in the New York Times: “This is a show about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history.” It has been gestating with its creators for over 20 years. But a now famous phone call by both men to Susan Booth, Alliance Artistic Director, put an end to the planning and dreaming when she said: “Please tell me you’re calling about ‘Harmony!’” The show was soon underway in earnest, with Tony Speciale directing and music direction by Patrick Vaccariello.
“Harmony” starts with a bang with great sound from its actor-singers and orchestra. Tobin Ost’s sets and costume design are superb. Whether it’s the Brandenburg Gate looming in the background or a bystander wearing a swastika, we never forget where we are—or when. Many of the actors are making their Alliance debuts, and they all have New York or national credits; they are solid professionals, quite young and attractive, and of course, very talented. Here they are:
Will Blum, Liberty Cogen, Hannah Corneau (who plays Ruth, the Jewish wife of one of the Harmonists, fearless, radical—very unloved by the Nazis), Chris Dwan, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Greg Kamp, Shayne Kennon (who plays “Rabbi” Josef and also serves as a narrator), Leigh Ann Larkin, Chad Lindsey, Lindsay Moore, Brandon O’Dell (who plays Albert Einstein, among others), Patrick O’Neill, Charles Osborne, Kim Sava, Dave Schoonover, Lauren Elaine Taylor, Will Taylor, Douglas Williams (terrific bass voice), and Tony Yazbeck. Ms. Taylor plays a young Marlene Dietrich in a sort of comic way, which I don’t quite get: Marlene Dietrich was a glamorous provocateur almost from day one.
As striking and compelling as “Harmony” is (the opening night audience was rapt, especially when Mssrs. Manilow and Sussman appeared onstage briefly after the two hour, 40 minute show), undoubtedly it will undergo some tinkering, and this is usual in big-time show business. After all, shows used to open in New Haven, then Boston or Philadelphia, and finally New York. Exorbitant costs have precluded that. And “Harmony” could use a bit more dramatic oomph—especially in Act I.
I have an idea: Since we’re dealing in part with the coming Holocaust, I think an older narrator would lend some historic gravitas, shall we say, to the proceedings. And, shall we say, Billy Crystal. Star power is needed with the economics of Broadway. He wouldn’t have to sing—just be there. Would you like to be a play doctor? If not, just go see this spectacular, perhaps historic, show.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.com.