Barry Manilow’s Musical Has Flaws, But Stellar Vocals

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Barry Manilow’s new musical “Harmony” might start with the lyrics: His name was Josef! He was a rabbi!

The tune to “Copacabana” isn’t here – it’s not a jukebox show – but the tune the singer is known for abounds. It is one of the best incidental scores of the theater season.

Manilow’s musical, which opened off Broadway on Wednesday (the composer tested positive for COVID and was unfortunately unable to attend), has a lot to offer. The drama is about a little-known and fascinating piece of World War II history that will have audiences running to Google at intermission. Manilow’s score, with lyrics by Bruce Sussman, is pretty and sometimes touching. And all the singers are sensational.

Yet there is some discord.

theater review

Duration 2h30 with an intermission. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl. Until May 8.

“Harmony,” which has been floating around the United States for more than three decades, tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German jokey music group popular in the 1920s that nearly died out after Hitler came to power.

The group performed at Carnegie Hall and chatted with Albert Einstein, Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich. They have toured the world, sold millions of records and made seven films. Three of the members were Jews 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 is joined by a surgeon who hates blood (Eric Peters), a brothel pianist (Blake Roman), an operatic bass (Sean Bell), a Bulgarian (Steven Telsey) and an actor (Zal Owen).

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

They all sing sublimely, together and separately – and are fearsome yuksters. But it’s Roman, just out of school, he’s the most amazing find. It has a soothing and moving solo in Act 2 which is unfortunately cut short. Fortunately, it could have lasted forever.

The complexity of the show comes when German Jews are stripped of their rights nationwide and Jewish music is banned, but Hitler allows the Comedian Harmonists to continue performing. The group, the Third Reich decides, can serve as propaganda for Nazi Germany abroad.

While the musical’s biggest asset is the sextet of musicians, the real starring role is veteran actor Chip Zien playing the rabbi (and a few other hilarious surprise characters) in old age.

The role of narrator is a new addition to the series, directed by Warren Carlyle, presumably to provide gravity and perspective – and Zien is in excellent shape. But the inclusion of the role both spoils his character’s eventual fate (he’s obviously no angel) and gives everything a stuffy air of nostalgia. We always look back.

Chip Zien says "Harmony" as a rabbi in old age.
Chip Zien narrates “Harmony” as a rabbi in old age.
Juliette Cervantes

The book, by longtime Manilow collaborator Sussman, also tends to jump to extremes. Much of the first act is devoted to introducing us to the six Comedian Harmonists in a catchy but lengthy opening number. They then have a flashing sequence and you miss being strangers and – hey presto! – are suddenly world famous. The borscht belt jokes 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 over their husbands’ role in Germany’s moral downfall, they are potentially fascinating. Yet, as magnificent as their music is, the parts seem light.

Just like the design. Beowulf Boritt’s ensemble of TV screens and minimal furniture is surely crippled by a downtown budget. It would be nice to see something more transporting and evocative.

Thus, the long journey of “Harmony” continues. But with Manilow’s beautiful music and this amazing company of actors, it’s worth the watch.

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