There was a fine 1997 German film about the Comedian-Harmonists, an all male German singing group that was the sensation of Europe from 1927-1934 when the Nazi's stopped the group because three members were Jewish. The group created much of their own material and their songs were the top hits of the day. They also starred in twelve films. The film, THE HARMONISTS, wisely presented a number of the Comedian-Harmonists' greatest hits as it chronicled the story of their rise and fall. The actors actually lip-synched to the original recordings. Now in the musical HARMONY Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have given us their musical take on the group. It is being tried out at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. I'm afraid the problems with the show are so basic that it can't possibly have much of a future.
HARMONY suffers from three major flaws. First, the music Barry Manilow has written for the group isn't as good as the Comedian-Harmonist's music. Not surprisingly it sounds like Barry Manilow, not like hit German tunes from the period. Would you write a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons without the music that made them famous? Why do that with the Comedian-Harmonists when their music is so delightful?
Second, there isn't enough of the Comedian Harmonists' act. They have only four onstage numbers. In general, Manilow is skimpy with music. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, he prefers to repeat the same few songs rather than write a real musical score. Most of the songs are mediocre maudlin ballads that have nothing to do with the group.
Third, the book is awful. Manilow and Sussman are more interested in the group as victims of Nazi oppression than as fine writers and performers. The Jews in the group weren't killed -- they got out and tried to form another group. In other words, they were more fortunate than six million others. Why single them out as victims? The show spends a lot of time on the troubled Gentile-Jew marriages of two of the group. Part of the success of the Comedian Harmonists came from the fact that their bouncy tunes offered a relief from the dire state of things in Germany during the depression and the triumph of the Nazi regime. HARMONY is more focused on the Nazi horror. The show is narrated by one of the group, a former Polish rabbi who is riddled by guilt because he didn't take political action. Could he really have killed Hitler? Doubtful. In the last ten minutes of the show, he has an interminable monologue cataloguing the fate of each member of the group as if they suffered greatly. Most lived into old age -- what's the big deal? It's dreary and badly written and the poor actor who has to speak it isn't up to the task. Who would be? Somehow Richard Strauss, Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein, all badly caricatured, end up in this mess.
The six performers who play the Comedian Harmonists -- Will Blum, Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor, Douglas Williams, Tony Yazbek -- are terrific in their numbers together. Too bad they couldn't do the original material. And too bad they are saddled with this bummer of a book. Too bad, too, that they don't get better direction and choreography. In every serious ballad -- and lord knows there are a lot of them -- director Tony Speciale has his performers move to the footlights and face forward. It's like bad opera direction. No one sings to the character they are supposed to be singing to or with. The orchestrations are pure Vegas and don't give any period flavor. They aren't helped by the tinny sound.
I doubt HARMONY is going far beyond Atlanta. Its faults are too basic to be corrected in a six week tryout. The Atlanta audience gave it a standing ovation. However, the Atlanta audience gives everything a standing ovation, thus rendering the practice meaningless.
HARMONY. Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. September 13, 2013