Theater review: Manilow’s ‘Harmony’ is a glorious work of art


“Harmony: A New Musical”

Grade: A-

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 6. (No 7:30 p.m. performance Oct. 6.) $30-$79. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000,

Bottom line: Manilow proves his mettle.

They were a boy band who sang like angels and wrestled with demons. They struggled with each other, with their women, with the law. They even had trouble coming up with the right name to describe their gossamer sound. Success proved elusive at first, then overwhelming — and tragic.

As a charismatic member of the pop group in question narrates its early history, introducing the singers one by one and describing how they came together, you may be reminded of a certain Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. With “Harmony: A New Musical” — which charts the rise and fall of an all-male ensemble in the dark days of Nazi Germany — Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have created a virtual “Jersey Boys” for Jews.

I mean that as a high compliment.

A labor of love whose two-decade incubation period includes a short-lived run at California’s La Jolla Playhouse (1997) and a promised Broadway engagement that never transpired (2004), this biography of the nearly forgotten Comedian Harmonists is getting a glorious third chance at the Alliance Theatre.

Though I admit being slightly disconcerted that the structure and subject matter so mirrored the foolproof “Jersey Boys” (which won the 2006 Tony Award for best musical), my reservations were ultimately transformed by Manilow’s virtuosic score; Sussman’s briskly paced book and engaging lyrics; and JoAnn M. Hunter’s dynamite choreography. (For the record, “Harmony” — impeccably directed here by Tony Speciale — is not a jukebox musical, but a wholly original work inspired by the intricate harmonies and syncopated rhythms of Berlin’s vaudeville heyday of the ’20s and ’30s.)

Indeed, the script does feel a little formulaic at first, a little too heavy on safe laughs and one-liners. And while it would be impossible to render full portraits of all six Comedian Harmonists in an evening-long work, the roles of the foppish, chain-smoking Lesh (Will Blum), the magnificent baritone Bobby (Douglas Williams) and the sturdy Harry (Tony Yazbeck) feel a bit thin. Instead, the writers focus on the characters known as the Rabbi (Shayne Kennon) and Chopin (Will Taylor), who marry outside their faiths respectively to Mary (Leigh Ann Larkin) and Ruth (Hannah Corneau). Erich (Chris Dwan), the sixth member of the group, harbors dangerous secrets and influential friends, including Albert Einstein and composer Richard Strauss, who make delightful cameos played by Brandon O’Dell.

After some rousing opening numbers (“Overture,” “Harmony”), Mary’s luminous “And What Do You See?” and a couple of comedic bonbons (“Your Son Is Becoming a Singer!”; “How Can I Serve You, Madame?”), the double wedding scene is a thing of somber joy, for you can feel the menace of Hitler hovering in the shadows. (This is probably a fine time to say that Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes, Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Darrel Maloney’s projections are absolutely gorgeous.)

While the 19-member cast is uniformly good, some performances deserve singling out. Kennon, in particular, is heartbreaking. Williams is possessed of a one-of-a-kind instrument, and you can hear it every time he opens his mouth to speak or sing. As the female leads, Larkin and Corneau are dazzling.

In the end, “Harmony” is a nearly flawless work of art that almost manages to cloak the harrowing underside of history in a bubble of elegance, sophistication and wit. At the end of the night, the waltz fades away, but the stars never dim. Can this obscure story find success in the realm of commercial theater? I believe so.