Harmony: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Mockingbird of a musical based on a largely forgotten male vocal sextet of international variety stars.

Barry Manilow provides the music for his long-gestating dream project about a largely forgotten male vocal sextet of international variety stars.

A long-gestating dream project by composer Barry Manilow and his collaborating wordsmith Bruce Sussman (Copacabana: The Musical, the neglected Disney animated feature Oliver and Company), Harmony is an ambitious musical doggedly committed to mimicking its betters: near beer Sondheim, watered down Kander & Ebb, tempered Rodgers & Hammerstein. Aping Cabaret, The Sound of Music and a virtual anthology of comparable antecedents, as well as flourishing a pair of inadequate sappy power ballads de rigueur for any contemporary commercial Broadway song score (with reprises), Harmony labors hard to be a simulacrum of a classic, too readily satisfied to be no more than reminiscent of its betters.

It’s something of a pity, because it sports a rather good subject, sincerity to spare, and a pretty consistent ear for the elements of a good musical. Its imitations and intimations for the most part aren’t noteworthily bad, so much as insufficiently inspired and relentlessly unoriginal. If one hasn’t seen many musicals, it’s a fair representation of a decent place to start: all the elements are in place, the production impressively splashy, the actors gifted, sprightly and charming, and unequivocally all involved resolute professionals. Harmony is certainly being presented here with all the love, talent and resources capable to put its best foot forward, including far too little of some most entertaining choreography. (Indeed, whenever it relies less upon its book and the integration of the songs, and more on expression through voice and physical movement, the better the show gets.)

PHOTOS: 35 of 2014's Most Anticipated Movies      

The Comedian Harmonists, a motley collection of oddball vocalists of disparate backgrounds (including, fatally, three Jews and another who married one), sang close harmony pop songs with deep jazz inflections, their six-part inventions including instrumental simulations and an ability to pass the lead seamlessly among themselves. Their trump card was their adept comic timing as they could burlesque their songs without compromising their blended musicality, enhanced in live performance by dexterous physical clowning. It’s something of a challenge to vivify a sextet of distinct personalities, along with a pair of love interests, and Harmony tackles the problem superficially yet for the most part effectively, primarily due to the vividness infused in the various types by a most energetic and engaging cast. Unfairly, I would single out bass-baritone Douglas Williams, who consistently surprises by fleshing out his quasi-heavy former opera singer both with droll humor suggestive of a Howard Keel and some complexity of inner conflict.

Most unfortunately, the amplification system in the hall does not remotely do justice to the aural pleasures of the rich, intricate vocal harmonies, which therefore lack the sensuous clarity one cherishes in live performance, as opposed to the highly compressed remnants of musical information that dominate most daily listening.

For all its amiable inability actually to grapple with its large themes, which tends to grow more egregious the more serious the material becomes in its second act, Harmony can boast an honest commitment to entertain without condescension, and despite the plethora of backstage origin story cliches, it’s invariably a great deal of fun to see and hear the Harmonists launch into their routines, redolent of the qualities and limitations of the Fox period musicals of the late 1930s to the late 1940s. It’s the sort of show one is almost as avid to like as it is eager to be enjoyed, but it keeps frustrating those hopes by rarely reaching up even to our indulgently lowered expectations.  

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, downtown Los Angeles (runs through April 13)

Cast: Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hannah Corenau, Chris Dwan, Douglas Williams, Matt Bailey, Will Blum, Greg Kamp, Brandon O’Dell, Lauren Elaine Taylor, Dave Schoonover

Director: Tony Speciale

Book & Lyrics: Bruce Sussman

Music: Barry Manilow

Choreographer: JoAnn M. Hunter

Music director: John O’Neill

Set & costume designer: Tobin Ost

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter & Seth Jackson

Sound designer: John Shivers & David Patridge

Presented by Center Theatre Group and Alliance Theatre, Atlanta