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Review: Manilow’s epic “Harmony” thrills at Alliance, but some discordant notes remain

"Harmony" hopes to be Broadway bound. (Photo by Greg Mooney)
"Harmony"  (Photo by Greg Mooney)
“Harmony” hopes to be Broadway-bound. (Photos by Greg Mooney)

Hand it to pop star Barry Manilow and his longtime writing partner, Bruce Sussman: their pet project musical “Harmony” isn’t gathering dust in an office desk somewhere. The two are still tweaking the piece, trying to make it Broadway-ready. In restaging the musical and bringing it to the Alliance Theatre for only its second full production, they’ve made a daring decision in hiring Tony Speciale to direct, over some higher-profile theatrical veterans. Even if the revamped “Harmony — A New Musical” isn’t yet entirely successful, it’s thrillingly produced and performed here, with Speciale staging the heck out of it.

Running through October 6, the show recounts the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, six young men who formed a band in Germany in the late 1920s. It opens with them performing at Carnegie Hall in 1933 and flashes back to their early days and beginning. “Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski (Shayne Kennon), a rabbi from Poland now ready to change his career path, is the narrator, recalling how band leader Harry Frommerman (played by Tony Yazbeck) hired him, Bobby Biberti (Douglas Williams), Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor), Erich Collin (Chris Dwan) and Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff (Will Blum). Known for their wide repertoire and ability to blend comedy with their vocals, the Comedian Harmonists became sensations, performing all over the world and making 12 movies. Along the way, Joseph marries Mary (Leigh Ann Larkin) and Chopin weds socialist Ruth (Hannah Corneau).

The band, made up of three Jews and three Gentiles, is initially safe as the Nazis start taking over, especially since their music is so beloved. Some of the Harmonists think the situation will eventually blow over, but over time their careers and time together become endangered.

After “Harmony” debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 1997, Sussman and Manilow prepped it for a run in Philadelphia that would theoretically lead to Broadway. That version never happened, and the show wound up in a producer’s hands. Back with Sussman and Manilow, “Harmony” has been shortened by almost an hour and has a completely new creative team.

Hannah Corneau (left) and Leigh Ann Larkin sing "Where You Go."
Hannah Corneau (left) and Leigh Ann Larkin sing “Where You Go.”

This production is highly theatrical and from a technical point of view almost flawless, with a versatile set by Tobin Ost that slides easily from Carnegie Hall to a train to a half-dozen other locations. It all looks genuine, with minute details in place, and it’s visual (major props to projection work by Darrel Maloney) and busy.

Speciale, known for his lauded Classic Stage Company version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in New York, brings the show an undeniable verve. But it’s never really that deep, or emotional, save for a few moments near the end. Act I is goofy at times, often humorous — Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein (drolly played by Brandon O’Dell) make appearances — but it ends on a chilling note as Rabbi realizes that the group is returning to Germany from New York. The second half is appropriately dark.

The entire ensemble is wonderful, especially Kennon, Blum and Corneau, who bring nuance to their characters. The central six click as a believable band — they are charismatic and hard-working, with an early “Harmony” number that lasts for what seems like 15 minutes. Sadly, however, there isn’t much dimension to some of the characters. The wives are given more detail than half the band members. Not surprisingly, the musical’s highlight is Ruth’s and Mary’s haunting “Where You Go,” in which they contemplate their futures. Except for it and the “Harmony” number, the music is pleasing enough (Dwan’s “Your Son Is Becoming a Singer!” is joyous) but doesn’t register the way a big-time musical could or should.

“Harmony” is much more developed than previous “Broadway hopeful” Alliance musicals such as “Ghosts of Darkland County” and “Zorro” were at this stage. After a Los Angeles run following the one in Atlanta, where the show goes next is anyone’s guess. It needs work, but if Speciale stays with the production, its future seems promising. “Harmony” is ambitious and epic, a paean to the real-life Harmonists. Credit Manilow and Sussman for wanting to get their story out. Their pet project still has some layers missing, but at least they have a first-rate team executing it.

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