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“Harmony” opens on Broadway with music by Barry Manilow

NEW YORK — Whatever the structural flaws of “Harmony,” the new Broadway musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, two facts are indisputable.

The first is that world events have now transformed what felt like a sweet little dull musical with a familiar message in an earlier off-Broadway production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage into a much more emotionally charged experience with increased weight and immensity. more emotional weight. The Comedian Harmonists consisted of three Gentiles and three Jews, and “Harmony” was structured as a cautionary tale: the group might have remained abroad had it not been blind to the clearly visible signs of their own imminent destruction. Many lines here point out the danger of not speaking out against oppression; Now they receive constant applause. As it’s supposed to be.

Second, the fact that Barry Manilow is coming to Broadway for a new musical at the age of 80 with an accessible but still diverse and harmonically sophisticated score, filled with songs driven by melodic and lyrical melodies, is a remarkable achievement for a remarkable songwriting and performing career. simplicity.

Featuring lyrics and book by Manilow’s longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, “Harmony” has been around for a while, but has earned its long-delayed spot on Broadway. It’s a perfect and truly awful moment.

The Broadway transfer was also greatly enhanced by the addition of Sierra Borgess as Mary and, especially, Julie Benko as Ruth, the Jewish girlfriend of one of the non-Jewish Comedian Harmonists. Benko dives into the unusual depths of a character without much of a back story, powering this part of the narrative and extracting every emotion imaginable from Manilow’s powerful song, “Every Single Day,” which is the show’s signature. At one point in the performance I watched, Benko’s face was so full of pain and longing that the image was frankly very surprising; It’s a necessary counter in a series filled with so many numbers based on the idea of ​​putting your emotions aside.

“Harmony” is structured as a memory musical. Rabbi (Chip Zien), a now older member of the group, watches his younger self (Danny Kornfeld) as he interacts with other diverse members of the singing group: Bobby (Sean Bell), Harry (Zal Owen), Erich (Zal Owen). Eric Peters), Chopin (Blake Roman) and Lesh (Steven Telsey). The Old Rabbi tells the story as his friends sing and discuss their growing, interconnected careers and complicated young lives; Unfortunately, they are unaware of the discord that awaits them.

This is not a highly sophisticated book, and the interplay between narration and dramatization is often choppy, despite Carlyle’s attempts to temper this with highly extended staging that makes very imaginative use of a mirrored medium, sometimes deeply affecting and sometimes distracting. There are references to “Cabaret” and “The Sound of Music” here, but Carlyle also explores some very emotionally interesting visual ideas, all deftly arranged, and the show is at its best when the intense directorial and choreographic perspective achieves parity with it. book of the show.

Zien’s narration takes up too much stage time and falls into repetitive vocal traits: He tends to deliver each line as if it’s the show’s highlight, and both fluency and structural tension suffer. However, the 76-year-old actor is unquestionably original in this role, a very important quality for this series’ target audience, and he is likable to boot. It might have been helpful to put the storytelling ahead of the guys in the group, who all sing and move so beautifully and whose fates you believe are intertwined.

Similar to learning lines, theater scholars often consider adaptability an essential part of the craft. But for most Broadway audiences, it’s a rare treat, and the vocal arrangements here (by Manilow and John O’Neill) come with an unusual amount of theatricality – rare unless you’re a long-time Manilow fan, given his decades of mastery. The kind of arrangements that bring anthems to a head and people on their feet. Perhaps this score, like most of Manilow’s initial creations, will have its detractors. But these would be snobby opinions, unaware of his unique skills in musical communication.

Ultimately, what “Harmony” is trying to say is that here is a band that can represent Germany at its best, a combination of Jews and non-Jews having fun and singing in perfect harmony. The first Nazi we see on the show (played by Andrew O’Shanick) is even a fan who protects the band at first. But as hatred begins to take hold, nothing about the Comedian Harmonists ceases to be funny, and their harmonies die forever.

The series is meant to make you think about what could have been, what could have been, and all I can say is that’s exactly what I’m thinking about when I hit my pillow.

at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York; harmonianewmusical.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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