Life story

The True Story of Nazi Brutality Decimating “Harmony” at Off-Broadway’s NYTF

Following an extended pandemic-related delay, the highly anticipated production of Harmony: a new musical, written by multi-award winner Barry Manilow (music and arrangements) and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman (book and lyrics), has finally arrived – nearly 25 years after its premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 1997 – at the perfect location in New York City, within viewing distance of the Statue of Liberty, for a limited seven-week Off-Broadway engagement. Presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (NYTF) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the lightly fictionalized real-life story offers a timely reminder of the personal toll of unfettered hate and bigotry and the timeless need to take position against encroaching atrocities before it is too late.

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters and Sean Bell. Photo by Juliette Cervantes.

Based on the true story of the long-forgotten Comedian Harmonists – one of Germany’s most successful pre-WWII musical acts (later the subject of a four-hour black-and-white television documentary in 1975, a book by Professor Peter Czada, Curator of The Comedian Harmonists Archive and of the 1997 German film Actor Harmonistsreleased in the United States as Harmonists) – the tone of the show slowly shifts from funny and melodious to frightening and heartbreaking, as it traces the short history of the popular sextet, which enjoyed international acclaim on stage, screen and recordings from 1928 to 1934, before The Nazi regime put an end to the half-Jewish half-Gentile group.

The musical is presented as a memory play, as the elderly narrator “Rabbi” – one of the former harmonists – remembers and reflects on key people and moments in his back story, sometimes embracing and sometimes confronting his younger self. It introduces us to the singers, each with a unique personality, background and voice, as they arrive individually to audition for Harry, the band’s founder, in 1927, then follows them through their rise to fame, from scenes dramatized romance and marriage, iconic performances at iconic venues in Europe and the United States, and encounters with some of the most notable personalities of their time, the increasing restrictions and persecutions they faced during the Third Reich of Hitler, and what happened to each of them afterwards.

Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner and Emmy nominee Warren Carlyle, the show and its great cast deliver the rich six-part vocals and physical comedy the band were known for, as well as the entertaining blend of humor at the old, youthful high energy. , and serious pathos. And Manilow’s score features a variety of mood-appropriate styles, from sextet central harmonies and vocal (and mimed) imitations of musical instruments to romantic ballads and traditional Jewish melodies, with orchestrations by Doug Walter and John O’Neill as musical director, additional vocal and musical arranger, and conductor of the resonant nine-piece orchestra.

Chip Zien. Photo by Juliette Cervantes.

Chip Zien plays the role of “Rabbi” and not only presents the facts, dates and events in his retrospective commentary, but also brings the surprises and the laughs (and some missed lines on the date I attended), with his unexpected appearances as many of the historical figures he remembers (both male and female), capturing a range of feelings in his over-the-top parodies, traditional Jewish ceremonies and lamentations, and his character’s guilt at not having acted against Nazism at the time.

The six Comedian Harmonists are the excellent and melodious Zal Owen (Harry), Danny Kornfeld (Young Rabbi), Sean Bell (Bobby), Eric Peters (Erich), Blake Roman (Chopin) and Steven Telsey (Lesh). Each portrait is distinctive, each voice, from falsetto to bass, is full and commanding, and each harmony and group dance is utterly captivating and exciting (“How can I serve you, Madame?” is particularly lively, bawdy and fun, and “Hungarian Rhapsody #20” is a witty version of a sequel to Franz Liszt’s original nineteen), as they reunite, express support for each other, are not d agree and fight, enjoy their budding stardom and are eventually forced to disband and then lose contact after the Nazi threat.

Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld. Photo by Juliette Cervantes.

There are also subplots of the men’s relationship with two women and the impact of Germany’s growing anti-Semitism on them. Sierra Boggess brings her exquisite soprano and heartfelt emotions to the authentic role of Rabbi Mary’s non-Jewish wife, highlighted in her expressive solo on “And What Do You See?” Jessie Davidson plays the composite character of Chopin’s wife, Ruth, who is Jewish, proud and outspoken (and with whom, the program acknowledges, the creators took artistic license). She and Boggess sing a sentimental duet on “Where You Go” (set in 1935 Cologne, when their husbands must decide whether to stay in Germany or leave the country in search of safety), and although their performances are strong and convincing, and bring a tone of intimacy to the growing dread, they lengthen the spectacle and add a note of unnecessary fiction to the otherwise true narrative. In fact (as also noted in the program), some of the Harmonists have been married several times, and one of the most dazzling production numbers, from a performance with the legendary Josephine Baker (well played by Ana Hoffman), does laughingly alluding to feminizing men.

Elise Frances Daniells, Zak Edwards, Eddie Gray, Shayne Kennon, Kolby Kindle, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Tori Palin (replacing Abby Goldfarb the night I was there), Barrett Riggins, Kayleen Seidl, Andrew O’Shanick, Dan Teixeira, Nancy Ticotin and Kate Wesler.

The cast is supported by effective art design, with stunning period costumes by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie, and wig and hair by Tom Watson. Beowulf Boritt’s minimalist, mostly bare-stage set allows for efficient transitions from scene to scene, with memorable background videos by batwin + robin productions, inc., sound by Dan Moses Schreier and the lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer that bring Rabbi’s memories to life and place them in the proper historical context.

While Harmony fulfills NYTF’s mission to dramatize the Jewish experience and the museum’s commitment to educating diverse visitors about Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust, it also provides a universal reminder to stop rampant hatred and violence and to enjoy the beauty and creativity of the arts and entertainment together sounding. It is a beautiful experience and a beautiful message.

Duration: About 2h30, intermission included.

Harmony plays through Sunday, May 8, 2022 at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, performing at Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, NYC. For tickets (priced at $79-129), call (855) 449-4658 or visit in line. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times while inside.

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