Theater Review: “Harmony” at the Ahmanson
I’d say it’s a given that any story set during the 1930s in Germany, especially if Jewish men or women are involved, is going to hover on the brink of catastrophe. That’s certainly the case with “Harmony,” a fairly new and retooled musical with music by Barry Manilow and lyrics, plus the book itself, by Bruce Sussman. Directed by Tony Speciale, it’s at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 13.
Not many people in the U.S. would know this or be expected to, but from 1927 to 1933 there was a very popular all-male sextet called the Comedian Harmonists. They sang smooth, kind of jazzy doo-wop tunes and even made it over to the United States in 1933 to perform at Carnegie Hall. Manilow has referred to them as the Beatles of Germany, which seems surprising, but then ask yourself: How many pre-World War II European singing groups can I name?
It’s natural to assume that the title of the show refers to the vocal expertise of its group members, but it’s also applicable to their ethnic makeup as well – half of them were Jewish and half weren’t. They worked well as a team and so, one might lament, why couldn’t Germany have followed suit?
The six leads are impressive and convincing, which is crucial for the show’s success. These include Matt Bailey (as Harry Frommerman), Will Blum (Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff), Chris Dwan (Erich Collin), Shayne Kennon (“Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski), Will Taylor (Erwin “Chopin” Bootz), and Douglas Williams (Bobby Biberti). There are two striking female leads, Hannah Corneau as Ruth Stern (the Jewish wife of Bootz) and Leigh Ann Larkin as Mary Hegel (the non-Jewish wife of Cykowski), although no less memorable are the smaller roles of Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid (Nazi officer wife) as performed by Lauren Elaine Taylor.
An easy criticism would be to say that the audience isn’t given much insight into each member of the group. They are, largely, drawn with broad strokes, with one or two traits to distinguish them from one another, but – and I’m thinking here of “The Scottsboro Boys” – to try and develop each character with greater depth when they have already subsumed their own identities to the larger identity of the group, would in this case at least impede the momentum of the show. It’s probably a no-win dilemma, and we see it somewhat in the duet that Mary and Ruth sing in “Where You Go.” It’s a showstopper, and in some ways that’s the problem.
The life-and-death sense of urgency that closes in around the Comedian Harmonists occurs near the end of Act I, and of course it picks up thereafter. One of the more startling scenes occurs when an onstage number is abruptly interrupted by angry shouts from the audience. Perhaps I should have written “spoiler alert” first; oh well, too late now. It’s the Nazis among us – Yes, that guy in the fifth row, and him, too, in the eleventh – beginning to object to Jewish performers, but that sudden shattering of theater’s fourth wall is one of the most effective moments for the unsuspecting viewer.
Now, everyone knows that Germany’s Jewish population suffered unimaginable horrors, and so on that account some of the Nazi threats and demands could have been presented in a more insidious rather than blatant manner, as in “Cabaret.” Or maybe it’s just that persecuted Jews and brutal Nazis are easy buttons to push for a guaranteed response.
It’s a quagmire that “Harmony” can’t avoid, when it steps into the didactic as Cykowski – now an old man and the group’s only survivor (although all of them made it through the war) – recounts the fate of each member. The real-life “Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski lived to be 97, dying in Palm Springs (of all places) in 1998. I’m guessing that some of the last words in the musical are really his, and even if they aren’t, verbatim, the closing segment is largely a tribute to his memory and his tenacity to survive. In some ways it may be a fitting ending, but it seems to saddle the work with an agenda better placed elsewhere.
That said, the compelling nature of the story, resuscitating undeservedly forgotten artists (reminiscent of LA Opera’s “Recovered Voices” series, featuring composers silenced by the Nazis), makes for a touching experience. As with “Backbeat,” which ended with large reproductions of Astrid Kircherr’s Hamburg-era portraits of The Beatles, this show closes with a backdrop projection of the original Comedian Harmonists. One can only be grateful that Manilow and Susskind resurrected them for the stage.
Harmony is playing through April 13 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Thursday at 2 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets, $30 to $105. Call (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.