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“Harmony” reviewed

Harmony tracks the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists, a German variety act that attained global fame in the Weimar era only to be pulled into the Nazi vortex, resulting in dispersion, exile, and death. It’s a potent slice of twentieth-century history that, in its depiction of antisemitism and the fascist suppression of dissent, has disturbing resonances for today. If its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, Warren Carlyle’s dynamic production, which blends ugly historical incidents with assured showbiz pizzazz in an almost surreal rush of events, keeps it intensely watchable.

Harmony is a memory musical, filtered through the consciousness of Rabbi, the group’s sole survivor, a retiree living in California. Stepping, literally, into the past, he looks on as, once again, the disaster that once ensnared him and his friends unfolds: A motley crew of personalities with varying levels of stage experience, the Harmonists are assembled by Harry, an ambitious actor and musical arranger; rehearsing in subway stations and providing offstage backup vocals for an attention-hogging Marlene Dietrich, success proves elusive until they add a dollop of Marx Brothers zaniness to the act. Soon, they’re the toast of Europe, even traveling to New York for a Carnegie Hall triumph. But the rumble of social unrest in the background turns to a steady drumbeat of menace as Hitler comes to power: Three of the Harmonists are Jews and two have entered into mixed marriages and the clock is ticking as official tolerance of them runs down. Sussman’s book effectively tracks the characters’ descent from its it’ll-all-blow-over denialism to the bitter realization that terrible choices must be made.

Understanding the appeal of the Comedian Harmonists is essential to the show’s effect; fortunately, Carlyle has at his command a six-pack of triple threats who deliver Manilow and John O’Neill’s stunningly intricate vocal arrangements while dancing and taking part in elaborate comedy routines. The lineup includes Danny Kornfeld as the young Rabbi, a cantor’s son eager “to sing a major key for a change;” Blake Roman as Chopin, the pianist, direct from his engagement in a local whorehouse; Zal Owen as Harry; Steven Telsey as Lesh, who has an angelic voice and an eye for redheads; Eric Peters as the astonishingly well-connected Erich, who also harbors a major secret; and Sean Bell as Bobby, a comic opera singer who handles of the group’s strained relations with the ruling regime. Along for the ride are Sierra Boggess as Mary, Rabbi’s gentile wife, who alone sees the coming storm, and Julie Benko as Ruth, Chopin’s spouse, a rabble-rousing Jewish communist activist. The elder Rabbi is played by Chip Zien, who also steps into various roles, including Richard Strauss and Albert Einstein.

Manilow and Sussman sometimes individual musical numbers as bases for complex sequences that follow multiple plot developments. The title tune introduces the older Rabbi, establishes the flashback structure, and assembles all six male leads. In “This is Our Time,” Rabbi presses his romantic case to Mary, Harry brings news of an important audition, and Ruth leads a Bolshevik rally in the streets. Other songs underline the show’s point about the persistence and distortions of memory; the second act begins with “We’re Goin’ Loco!”, a tropical spree featuring the Harmonists and their good friend Josephine Baker, allegedly in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934; it ends in disarray by the anguished older Rabbi, lamenting the production number that never was thanks to their fateful decision to return to Germany and ride out the storm.

Providing strong contrast are such inventively staged routines designed to show off the act’s comic chops. These include “How Can I Serve You, Madam?”, a risqué sketch in which the Harmonists, sans pants, deliver a series of double-entendre lyrics, concluding with an epic seltzer gag; “Hungarian Rhapsody #20,” a slapstick tribute to Franz Liszt; and “Come to the Fatherland,” a deliberate act of political provocation featuring the singers dressed like marionettes. (“Who cares how the wind may blow?/We just string along/Life is simple when you know/Having rights is wrong.”) The score is light years away from Manilow and Sussman’s pop compositions in every way but their tunefulness and technical expertise. Everything is put to the uses of drama, especially, “Where You Go”, sung by the two main couples — in one case amounting to a pledge of eternal devotion and in the other representing a wrenching breakup.

Beowulf Boritt’s set, assembled from dark, mirrored panels in forced perspective, serves as a surface for the fragmented, collage-like images created by Batwin + Robin Productions, effectively suggesting that the action unfolds in the older Rabbi’s mind. The lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, achieves deliberately disorienting shifts of mood in addition to artfully carving the cast out of the darkness. The costumes, by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie, include meticulously tailored suits and tuxes for the men and some stunning evening gowns for the ladies. Dan Moses Schreier’s superb sound design allows the Harmonist’s vocals to shine.

In a cast packed with lively young talents, standouts include Kornfeld, bringing the first act to a halt with the knockout ballad “Every Single Day;” Roman, as Chopin, increasingly torn between his marriage and political expediency; and Bell, especially in a chillingly polite encounter with a military official ( Zak Edwards) who offers some unwelcome advice. (Sticking in the knife, the official tells them, “Your performances in other nations are proving to be a great asset to our cause. You are our… ambassadors of goodwill.”) Boggess and Benko deliver two very different, yet equally strong-minded, women, and their voices — one a lyric soprano, the other a lusty belt — combine beautifully, especially in “Where You Go.” Zien is often poignant as the older Rabbi, obsessed with the roads not taken and torturing himself for not acting when, by sheer happenstance, he comes face to face with Hitler.

At times, however — especially when he turns up as other characters, Zien’s work descends into comic shtick, and some of the first-act humor is more Catskills than Depression Berlin. (Mary worries that is Rabbi is rushing things while admitting they’ve been going out for two-and-a-half years. “And on the Jewish calendar, it’s longer!” cracks Ruth. Lesh, greeting Einstein, is mortified when his pants drop. “What a splendid example of the laws of gravity!” notes the professor. Also, I doubt that Baker would make out with one of the Harmonists in front of a gaggle of American reporters.) The climax, in which Rabbi reveals the fates of his friends, is relegated to a monologue that goes on too long, which Zien further extends with overemoting. The facts are sufficiently devastating that brevity and understatement would work much better.

Still, Carlyle stages a moving finale, featuring the ballad “Stars in the Night,” which collapses the line between past and present, bringing the older Rabbi together with his long-gone friends and face-to-face with his younger self. And, for most of its running time, Harmony is a powerful portrait of entertainers performing, frantically, on a collapsing stage, hoping they can stave off catastrophe by simply keeping the music going. Cheers to Manilow and Sussman for sticking by their passion project for a quarter of a century. The story of the Comedian Harmonists needed to be told and it is done here with considerable feeling and panache.