LA JOLLA — If "I Write the Songs" makes you break out in a polyester rash, rest assured that "Harmony," the new musical by Barry Manilow and his longtime lyricist Bruce Sussman, is not marked by '70s-style sentimentality, although one production number with bananas does threaten to turn into "Copacabana." No, "Harmony"--which tells the story of a German singing group that finds fame as Hitler comes to power--has its problems, but the music is not chief among them.
"Harmony" opened at the La Jolla Playhouse on Sunday night. The Comedian Harmonists, as the group called itself, enjoyed an eight-year run, performing in films and in concert halls around the world. They started in the lean times of 1927 and disbanded in 1935, when the Nazis finally outlawed them--three of the six members were Jewish. A documentary by Eberhard Fechner helped save their story from the historical scrapheap, and Sussman, "Harmony's" book writer, attempts to pick up the ball. The metaphor of the group's existence is a dramatist's dream: They were harmony personified in the most dissonant of times.
Metaphors aside, their story is not told well here. First, the characters all speak in earnest cliches. "You make me feel important--that counts for something, doesn't it?" is the vernacular of the evening. Sussman's tin ear for the fine points of believable human speech extends to a scene in which Albert Einstein seems to be very impressed by the "powerful and influential" NBC executives he sits next to at a Comedian Harmonists concert. And when a German Jew yells at her husband in 1934 for "not having the spine" to "stand up to" the Nazis, you wonder why Sussman has to apply ordinary American interpretations of courage and spunk to a story that only renders them trivial.
Key sections are completely unbelievable--Sussman has the group traveling to Copenhagen in 1934 on a special dispensation from the Nazis and there performing a blatantly anti-Nazi number and then coming home with impunity. Another scene depicts the group the following year, on a train going through the German countryside. When they find out that Hitler's on board, they organize a spontaneous protest. They decline to rise; they sit unmolested and audibly sing a Jewish prayer as Hitler and his men pass by. A program note explains that this meeting on the train really did take place, but the ring of truth is, shall we say, absent.
This scene is also the culmination of an ongoing mystery. Rabbi (Danny Burstein), the narrator of this tale and a member of the group, has stopped several times in his story, each time scrunching his eyes and screaming "No!" at a horrible memory. Now we finally find out why. He's screaming "No!" because he had the chance to grab a gun from one of Hitler's guards and kill Hitler on the train, and he didn't.
While the inability to take action against evil could certainly cause lifelong regret, dramatically this is a far too abstract moment on which to hang the key to a main character's anguish.
Oh yes, the music. As they find fame, the Comedian Harmonists perform sonorous harmonies in tails and smiles, and these numbers are inevitably pleasant and well performed. Breaking away from the male-harmonic mode, Manilow and Sussman do their best work. "Every Single Day" is a beautiful Act 1 song for a double mixed-marriage wedding between Rabbi and Mary (the lovely, underutilized Rebecca Luker), and Chopin (a solid Patrick Wilson) and Ruth (Janet Metz, a shade too brittle). Protected under the traditional Jewish chuppa, the couples take turns singing a soaring melody and clean lyric full of hope and prayer. A second-act duet, "Where You Go," is also haunting and performs the job of having one couple deepen their commitment while another parts with deepest regret.
Not all the songs are as felicitous. Being banished from a movie set, Josephine Baker (Thursday Farrar) sings a ludicrous condemnation of the Nazis called "Little Men," in which she goes on and on about them having "bricks for brains" and "tiny sticks." Director David Warren borrows staging devices from the backstage musicals of Michael Bennett and Harold Prince, which work well to tell this story efficiently most of the time. However, there is nothing efficient about the show's opening or close, both of which seem to take forever and offer not nearly enough bang for your theatrical buck. By contrast, the Act 2 opener, "Something Like Paradise," a fantasy number of V-J Day in New York, offers snazzy, attention-grabbing choreography by Charles Moulton. But it has nothing to do with the story.