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Review: Barry Manilow's 'Harmony' musical can sing but needs work

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A show about the late Weimar era vocal troupe the Comedian Harmonists bearing the title "Harmony" had better have memorable singing, and on that score this musical by Barry Manilow and his writing partner Bruce Sussman doesn't disappoint.

In solos, duets and ensemble numbers especially, the voices soar on lilting melodies that strive to conjure the glory days of the American musical, that period bookended between Rodgers & Hammerstein and Kander & Ebb.

The show's numbers may not evoke those easy-listening Manilow hits of the 1970s, but they have an ingratiating beauty that serves to remind that the man who made famous the Bruce Johnston lyric "I am music. And I write the songs" has reason to boast.

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That's the good news.

The not-so-good news about this years-in-the-making musical — originally produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997 and now getting another crack at the big time in a retooled version that opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre — is that its conventional storytelling and derivative theatrical imagination prevent it from establishing its own originality.

This is a show clearly indebted to "Cabaret," whose more daring raciness was caught in the same deadly whirlwind of history. Manilow, who wrote the music, imports some Klezmer moonlight from "Fiddler on the Roof" and even tries to match the orchestral lushness of "South Pacific."

The overture alone indicates the composer's old-school aspirations. And as the endless opening number, "Harmony," makes clear, the music will lead rather than follow Sussman's more rudimentary book and lyrics.

The pit orchestra, conducted by music director John O'Neill, leans a bit too heavily at times on the keyboards but otherwise sounds great. Musically, the show announces that this is a major effort, but the production, directed by Tony Speciale, falls short of its ambition.

The subject is a worthy one. The Comedian Harmonists were six singers from different backgrounds who formed a group in Berlin in 1927. Their rise to stardom, in an act that blended comedy with jazz-influenced ensemble singing, was upturned by Hitler's racist policies, which deemed "decadent" anything that had traces of non-Aryan culture.

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Their story is narrated by Josef Roman Cykowski (Shayne Kennon), a former rabbi from Poland who answers an ad placed by Harry Frommerman (Matt Bailey) seeking "five young men to perform in new modern singing group." The ability to sing harmony is the main requirement, and the disparate fellows who answer the call discover that their differences don't impede their ability to blend together.

The singers are introduced through their auditions, and Sussman's book doesn't do more than establish a broad identity for each character: First impressions hold.

Ari "Lesh" Leshnikoff (Will Blum) is the goofily direct Bulgarian waiter. Erich Collin (Chris Dwan) is the anxious, rich young doctor with a literary quotation for every occasion. Bobby Biberti (Douglas Williams) is the half-Italian, half-German singer with operatic pretensions. And Erwin "Chopin" Bootz (Will Taylor) is the easygoing dude who got his nickname playing piano in a whorehouse.

Figuring prominently are two love interests, Mary Hegel (Leigh Ann Larkin), a German gentile who marries Josef despite her fears for their future, and Ruth Stern (Hannah Corneau), a Jewish woman courageously engaged in the radical protest movement who marries "Chopin," her opposite, a guy fearful of making waves. (Ruth is a composite character in a work that takes dramatic liberties.)

Their joint wedding at a Berlin synagogue in 1931 occurs on the cusp of the group's short-lived success. It's a moment of romantic hope set against a darkening backdrop. Inherently moving as this situation is, there's a hackneyed quality to the dramatic handling.

"Harmony" is too generalized to be genuinely moving. If tears are shed, they are for the brutality of history, not for characters whom we have come to know intimately.

For a production in which transit plays such a crucial role — Tobin Ost's scenic design, enhanced by Darrel Maloney's projections, readily transforms into a Berlin train station — it's surprising that Speciale's maneuvering of the actors is so static.

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Group numbers tend to revert to drill formation. Ballads are delivered more to the audience than to the character to whom they are addressed. Performers linger awkwardly during rousing ovations.

JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography provides a hint of the kind of mildly salacious physical comedy that gave the Comedian Harmonists the first half of their name. But the dancing follows the direction in settling for a polished safety over something more fresh and unpredictable.

When dealing with historical material of this nature, the trajectory is pretty much fixed. The dramatic focus, however, is under the control of the artists.

There are times when "Harmony" seems to be written by a Wikipedia scribe: "Today, September 15, 1935, our Führer signed the Nuremberg Laws." When the musical breaks free from its expositional responsibilities and concentrates on the artistry of the group, it momentarily springs to life, as in the "Hungarian Rhapsody #20" number, a parody of Franz Liszt that turns a musical joke into political satire.

Many of the first-act songs would benefit from judicial pruning: Even the lovelier melodies grow tedious when repeated incessantly. "Where You Go," performed by Larkin and Corneau, brings down the house but shouldn't be allowed to stop the drama. The more rambunctious numbers, such as "Your Son Is Becoming a Singer" and "Come to the Fatherland," are a relief from the sentimentality that is endemic to the work.

An enormous amount of love has gone into "Harmony," produced last fall by Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. This isn't a late-career vanity project: Manilow could easily have put together a jukebox musical around his hits. (His Broadway concert last year revealed the enduring strength of his star power.)

But if this show wants to have a harmonious Broadway future, it will need more critical distance from a creative team that could use some strategic reshuffling.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Harmony'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Please call for exceptions.) Ends April 13.

Price: $20-$105

Contact: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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