Theater Beat
by Emilie Winthrop
December '1997
The LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE has brought a major musical drama to this area in Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's Harmony. The play is the deeply moving and disturbing true story of the Comedian Harmonists who began their act as street musicians during the desperate days of Germany's Weimar Republic in the 1920s. By the '30s, they had become world-famous entertainers. As the title suggests, the harmony between the three who happened to be Jews and the three who happened to be Gentiles was embodied, not only in their performances, but in their personal lives. Unfortunately, Nazism impacted not only these lives, but harmony all over the world.
For those who remember, or have studied the period, this production catches with great style, subtlety, and even humor, the denial of what was really occurring. For those who are too young for such memories, Harmony's message serves as a warning that such political evil can arrive with a plausible face, until it is too late. It is also refreshing in that it demonstrates horrors that were committed, not only against the Jews, but against anyone who resisted the Nazis.
It is a credit to all those involved in the creation and presentation of this production that, unlike the much vaunted but superficial Rent that preceded it into the Playhouse, Harmony is both engaging entertainment and the sort of serious theater that lingers in the mind. Manilow's score shows maturity in a musical talent that has been perhaps wasted on pop tunes. The title song is destined to have a long shelf life. But it is Sussman's book, the understated elegance of David Warren's direction, and the exceptional talents of a relatively unfamiliar cast that make Harmony a major theatrical event.
In his role of the narrator, a man seeking to regain and make peace with his past, Danny Burstein (Rabbi), is superb. By building a character with which everyone can identify, he assures a shattering impact on the audience. Burstein could well have dominated the show with such a performance, if it were not for the equally fine acting of Mark Chmiel (Lesh), James Clow (Bobby), Patrick Wilson (Chopin), Thom Christopher Warren (Harry), and Steven Goldstein (sensational as Erich).
Rebecca Luker plays Rabbi's Gentile wife, Mary. Her exceptionally lovely voice is familiar to San Diego audiences from her performance in the Old Globe's Time and Again. Luker's song, with Janet Metz (Ruth), the haunting "Where You Are" provides a another high point in the score. Luker's restraint in her part provides poignant counterpoint to the roles of the others. Metz, in contrast, was the only one in the production that I felt slightly overplayed her part. Perhaps, she has grown more comfortable in the role by now.
Special kudos are in order for Derek McLane's extremely effective, yet simple, set design, enhanced by Kenneth Posner's dramatic lighting. So, too, for Mark Wendland's costumes and Charles Moulton's delightful choreography. In spite of the need for some very minor tweaks that may have been made since the opening, Harmony deserves a long run. It is certainly one of the theatrical high points of this year.

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