You had to expect it. Barry Manilow's musical “Harmony” opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles Wednesday, after a first run in La Jolla nearly 17 years ago and a recent production in Atlanta, and the crowd that showed up was ready and willing to cheer every song that Manilow wrote for the show, to cheer for Bruce Sussman's book and lyrics, to cheer the orchestra and to cheer for anyone who moved or sang onstage.
It was a “Fanilow” audience, and it gave an over-the-top reception to the musical based on the lives and performances of the Comedian Harmonists, the six-singer German musical group from the early 1930s that was, in its time, as big as the Beatles were 30 years later. The Comedian Harmonists, whose careers were ended by the Nazis (several members were Jewish) are still hot in Germany, but forgotten by most folks elsewhere.
This musical, in the works on and off for nearly 30 years, aims to change that.
The Comedian Harmonists became stars in the Weimar era, combining a precise six-part harmony with performances that were dynamic and delightfully funny. They made a dozen or so films, headlined shows with their names above Marlene Dietrich's and toured in Europe and the United States extensively. That they became forgotten says much about the continuing influence of the Nazi era.
The group was formed in 1927 by Harry Frommerman (played by Matt Bailey), who advertised for singers and led the group. The others were Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff (Will Blum), Erich Collin (Chris Dwan), “Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski (Shayne Kennon), Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor) and Bobby Biberti (Douglas Williams). When the actors are together performing the several musical numbers Manilow wrote for them, choreographed with precision and comic grace by JoAnn M.
But the story is another matter. Sussman wants to make the Comedian Harmonists iconic representatives of Nazi persecution and while they were that, they were also exemplars of the Germany that flourished between the world wars, comic geniuses who worked hard to attain their success and gloried in it. They were finally undone by Nazi laws banning Jewish music, Jewish song publishers, Jewish anything, but they were more than just victims, and “Harmony” would be better with more performances by the Harmonists and less suffering.
There are women in the mix, of course, but, as the program notes tell it, the Harmonists had many wives and the story had to be pared down to just two, Mary Hegel (Cykowski's wife, played by Leigh Ann Larkin) and Ruth Stern (Hannah Corneau as a fictional composite of several women).
The six Harmonists look their parts and have individual personalities that mesh best when they are singing. Manilow wrote all the music for the show, so there's naturally a big showstopper, but the group also does well by the Franz Liszt parody “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 20” and — wearing waiters coats and colorful underwear — “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” The orchestra in the pit plays with energy but not great swing.
The problem is, “Harmony” is a musical built on the personalities of the performers — not on the music, which is generally light but forgettable, and not on the book, which is serviceable but a bit too glib. You'll come away not humming new songs, but impressed by these performers, and the era they represent. And then you will have to buy a couple of recordings to learn just how great the Comedian Harmonists were and still are.
John Farrell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday until April 13.
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
Information: 213-628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org.