Thursday, January 18, 2024

Review: Harmony

Review of the Sunday matinee performance on January 7, 2024 at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City. Starring Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, Julie Benko, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Bruce Landry, Eddie Grey, Allison Semmes and Andrew O'Shanick. Music and orchestrations by Barry Manilow. Book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. Scenic design by Beowulf Borritt. Costume design by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Media design by batwin + robin productions. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle.  2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission.

Though not the first Broadway musical with The Comedian Harmonists - there was the short-lived Band in Berlin in 1999 - Harmony surely makes the case that their story is one worth telling. To be completely honest, I was very ambivalent about even seeing it. The reviews were mostly kind but not very exciting, and the producers did little to promote their show post-opening. But that's not exactly true, either, as not long before we got the chance to see it, they put out a pro-shot video of a gorgeous song called "Where You Go," a stunning duet sung by two of the show's biggest assets, Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko. Suddenly, Harmony was back on my radar. Braving the snow and brisk wind, I was in line at TKTS, and I procured what were premium seats (!) at less than half price. Our Sunday afternoon was set. For better or for worse, we were seeing Barry Manilow's passion project musical.

So, was it worth it? Mostly. Really, there were two "problems" with it for me as I was watching it: the book by Bruce Sussman and one performance that stood out, not for its power, but for its overwrought delivery. (More on that later...) 

Told from the perspective of the group's last living survivor, the show chronicles the formation, meteoric rise, and tragic downfall of arguably the biggest international entertainment success of the era. Starting off with an epic opening sequence (aptly, "Harmony"), and punctuated by several numbers that show the Harmonists doing what they do best, and bolstered by a few lovely ballads, the show is pretty thrilling as a piece of musical theater. And much of that credit goes to Mr. Manilow who wisely stayed away from recreating actual Harmonists numbers, and instead created a solid score with gorgeous orchestrations (he did both). Mr. Sussman's lyrics are, by and large, just as solid. It is his book that was more hit and miss. Thankfully, he went light on telling us what happened and mostly showed us, and there are some real moments of genuine pathos, meant to move us. And he did. Other times, though, he was rather heavy-handed in getting his point across, beating the proverbial dead horse more than once. And there were a few moments where there were some awkward (and eye roll inducing) attempts at humor that, frankly, took me out of it.

It pains me to say that one of my all-time favorite performers is central to all that is wrong here. Chip Zien as the narrating sole survivor, Rabbi, does the best he can, I suppose, with a bit where he changes costumes and wigs to play small supporting roles like Albert Einstein. It is pretty funny the first time he does it, but the returns by the fifth and sixth time are definitely diminished. Most of it is unnecessary. The most egregious thing about his performance though is a shocking lack of subtlety. He mugs, breaks the fourth wall, and works himself up into a sweaty, spittle spewing mess by the time he gets to the 11 o'clock number, where he scream/shouts much of the lyrics in a number called "Threnody." Lament, indeed. The Merm showed more restraint in "Rose's Turn." I guess he's not entirely to blame, he was directed to do so, of course. The whole last part of the show feels like button pushing, but it never really gets there. Such excess had the opposite of the desired response - I know they wanted us to have a cathartic cry, but I couldn't muster a tear. (If you knew me you'd really understand why that is surprising.)

And yet...

This show has stuck with me for nearly two weeks since I saw it. I keep going back to some really amazing moments: the thrilling build of the opening number, the zany physical comedy, the chill of Nazis walking among us with the sneer of superiority on their smug faces, the tense moments where bad decisions were made. That lovely duet. The clever staging of the satirical marionette number ("Come to the Fatherland"). And the performances. The six men portraying the group. The farther I get from it, the more it grows on me.

Both Ms. Boggess and Ms. Benko are thoroughly excellent - one wishes they had more to do. The former certainly continues to build what will end up being a storied stage career, while the latter certainly has proven that her headline-making turn as Fanny Brice was no fluke. Julie has got the goods and then some. 

The other featured actress, Allison Semmes as Josephine Baker, is a high energy jolt in both of her scenes, including the "Copacabana"-esque follies number, "We're Goin' Loco!" which opens the second act.

It is the six men who make up the celebrated group that carry the show, and they are all superb. Tighter harmonies will be hard to find for several seasons, I am sure. And when you consider how strenuous and athletic their numbers are (rousing choreography by Warren Carlyle) their accomplishments are all the more praise-worthy. At the performance we attended, two of the young men were understudies, though you'd never know it. Both Bruce Landry (as the troubled pianist Chopin) and Eddie Grey (as the spirited tenor buffo Lesh) were amazing, and each really shone in their featured moments. Sean Bell is the realist, Bobby, particularly powerful in his number, "Home;" Eric Peters is the monocled Erich, a man with many secrets. The founder and passionate dreamer, Harry, is played with understated passion (very welcome) by Zal Owen, and, as Young Rabbi, Danny Kornfeld wrings every bit of genuine emotion out of a role that requires him to let us see where Mr. Zien's world-weary version came from. Mr. Kornfeld is excellent in every way - would that Zien had the same restraint.

As wonderful as Mr. Carlyle's choreography is here, his direction only occasionally reaches the same heights. When it is good, it is very good: there's a train scene so tense you could feel it like electricity in the audience. When it's not very good, it grinds things to a halt, becoming a didactic, off-putting slog. Still, he creates, along with his collaborators, some visually stunning moments. Beowulf Borritt's black mirrored box set manages to be both expansive and claustrophobic depending on the scene, and batwin + robin productions provides some lovely and some disturbing projections, made all the more so by being shown through those imposing black mirrors. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer do more of their patented gorgeous lighting, and Moses Shreier's sound is well-balanced and crystal clear. Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie's period costumes, evening gowns and tuxedos get the job done.

Since I first wrote this review, the show's closing was announced for February 4th. Considering its box office record, it is really only surprising that it held out as long as it did. It's also a shame, because it is a show that needs to be seen, flaws and all. I've seen many shows that I loved - adored even - that didn't stay with me like this one has. And that says a lot.

📸: J. Cervantes

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