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Manilow Mans Up: Agitprop Amidst the Show Biz Shtick

Shayne Kennon and Leigh Ann Larkin

Shayne Kennon and Leigh Ann Larkin

Who knew? It comes as a shock but beneath the schlock Barry Manilow really is an artist, after all. I’d always regarded the saccharine songwriter as a sappy showman, a tunesmith composing and performing schmaltzy pop ditties such as “Mandy.” But in the musical Harmony -- which he composed the music for, with lyrics and book by his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman -- Manilow mans up and tackles the really big, deep subjects.

And by that I mean Nazism and Jewish identity, as well as the nature of the creative process, true love and loyalty. Heady stuff for the “Copacabana”crooner, who was a Jew born during WWII. Mixed in with Harmony’s mirth, show biz razzmatazz and Schicklgruber shtick is the kind of agitprop that arguably would have been right at home on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s stage.

Harmony is set during that radical duo’s heady heyday and mostly takes place in Weill and Brecht’s homeland, 1920s to 1930s Weimar Germany. It is a sort of bio-play, inspired by the real life Comedian Harmonists, a popular sextet who combined comic onstage antics with singing in harmony. Imagine a barbershop quartet with the comedic musical sensibility of a Spike Jones or Weird Al Yankovic. The production shows how the Comedian Harmonists were formed and found fame and fortune, as they performed at Berlin cabarets, Carnegie Hall and on the silver screen, becoming the toast of two continents. En route to stardom they even backed up a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich in a nightclub act. (In her top hat, tux and garters Lauren Elaine Taylor is droll, if a bit unkind, as she spoofs the sexy singer/actress who went on to become a movie legend -- and renowned anti-fascist).

Douglas Williams, Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Matt Bailey, Will Taylor and Will Blum

Douglas Williams, Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Matt Bailey, Will Taylor and Will Blum

Unfortunately for the Comedian Harmonists their diverse composition ran counter to the dogma and demands of the emerging Third Reich. Consisting of Aryans and non-Germans, goys and Jews, the group ran afoul of Nazi notions of racial purity. One of the Christian members --

“Chopin” (Broadway veteran Will Taylor plays piano virtuoso Erwin Bootz) -- even has the temerity to not only marry a Jew, but Ruth Stern also appears to be a Marxist, or at least sympathetic to the KPD (German Communist Party). She insists that everyone wears red to an anti-fascist rally, and Ruthie the Red (my nickname, not the play’s) delivers an anti-Nazi speech or two that could have been written by Brecht.

On the other hand, in keeping with a Hegelian dialectic, the Comedian Harmonist nicknamed “Rabbi” -- Josef Roman Cykoski, who actually had indeed been a rabbi and who’d fled Poland’s pogroms -- weds über-Aryan Mary Hegel (Leigh Ann Larkin). In what may be the musical’s most moving number, as the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws and campaign against “degenerate” art clamp down on the group, blonde-haired Mary explains in “Where You Go”her undying, unswerving love for and loyalty to Rabbi (Shayne Kennon, whose character sort of narrates Harmony). Using quotes from the Old Testament Mary’s steadfast ode of allegiance is more soulful than any of Manilow’s pop tunes.

Constancy and trustworthiness is a recurring theme in Harmony. Berlin-born Bobby Biberti (operatic bass-baritone Douglas Williams) is surreptitiously approached by the smarmy Standartenfuhrer (Chad Lindsey) and solicited to inform on his Comedian Harmonists. Will he get all Elia Kazan and rat out his comrades?

Leigh Ann Larkin and Shayne Kennon

Leigh Ann Larkin and Shayne Kennon

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Another standout in the fairly large cast is Will Blum, who displays a comic flair along with his musicality, as “Lesh” or Ari Leshnikoff, a Bulgarian singing waiter (a la the servers at Hollywood’s and Universal City’s Miceli’s). Chris Dwan plays the Comedian Harmonists’ secretive Erich Collin -- one of his deep, dark secrets may give you the smile of the day. Matt Bailey, who has played Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys, portrays the sextet’s founder, Harry Frommerman.

Some of the actors with smaller parts play multiple roles, such as Brandon O’Dell, who depicts composer Richard Strauss and a whimsical Albert Einstein, who has a good quip regarding gravity. But the character with the most gravitas in this tragicomedy is Ruth, whom Hannah Corneau invests with dignity and integrity. From our 21st century vantage point per historical events that occurred 80-ish years ago, there’s something truly heartbreaking listening to Ruthie the Red rail against the Nazis, confident fascism will be averted in Germany, that supposed beacon of civilization. From our post-Holocaust perch, we know what’s coming for Ruthie and European Jewry, although in the early 1930s the Shoah’s genocidal barbarism on a grand, industrial scale must have seemed, as Ruth’s character reminds us, unthinkable. Audience members may wince as characters try to wish away the Nazis, saying “It will all blow over,” as the whirlwind that seemed incomprehensible to them begins to blow.

Sussman’s writing and director Tony Speciale’s staging are effective. The re-creation of an exquisite Jewish ceremony is touching; followed by an overhead Nazi intrusion, the transition is especially jarring. From a synagogue to the overhead timetable of a train station to cabarets, the sets by Tony nominee Tobin Ost combined with Darrel Maloney’s projection and video design are fluid and keep the well-paced two-acter moving. As does JoAnn Hunter’s choreography, which ranges from the vaudevillian to the goosestepping.

Manilow’s music is often buoyant and melodic, if a bit repetitious. The opening number, “Harmony” is, well, harmonious, but it goes on for about 15 minutes or more and is later reprised. Several numbers, including the Comedian Harmonists’ 1930 premiere at Berlin’s posh Barbarina Club -- wherein the lads take a page from lingerie-clad Dietrich’s book, decades before Madonna performed in her undergarments -- and the parody pieces “Hungarian Rhapsody #20” and “The List” reveal that the Manilow-Sussman team have a comic panache. While the grand finale, “Stars in the Night”, is nothing less than a hymn to hope.

With such a large cast, it’s hard sometimes to remember which member of the Comedian Harmonists is who. To paraphrase that 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, perhaps “what we have here is a failure to delineate” -- perhaps due to the writing or acting. The story is framed by Rabbi’s narration and at the end bookwriter Sussman commits one of theatre’s cardinal sins: He tells us, rather than shows us, the fates that befell the six singers and the women who loved (some of) them.


On opening night, as the audience gave standing ovations, Manilow and Sussman took to the stage during the curtain calls. In what he said was a surprise Sussman introduced the actual grandson of one of the Comedian Harmonists. The librettist also described the fate of one of the sextet, who lived to a ripe old age and became America’s oldest active cantor. This reviewer assumes Sussman won’t go onstage after every performance to tell the aud what happened to his characters; it would have been better to dramatize this during the final act. Although Sussman has previously worked in the theatre and cinema, one assumes these lapses are because he is primarily a lyricist, not a dramatist.

Nevertheless, don’t let these shortcomings deter you from seeing this musical. Its leitmotif is nothing less than the true nature of harmony, which this disparate, diverse sextet found in the commingling of their voices and in their offstage unity -- even as an antithetical ideology of divisiveness and conquest swept Germany, and “tomorrow the world.” Harmony comes close to a harmonic convergence and made me, well, ready to take a chance on Barry Manilow again.

Harmonyplays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., through April 13 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. (Note exceptions: The Saturday March 22 show is at 8:30 p.m.; 2:00 p.m. performances are added on Thursdays April 3 and April 10; and there are no 6:30 p.m. shows on Sundays April 6 and April 13.) For more info here; (213)972-4400.

Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See: