LOS ANGELES — Introducing the Comedian Harmonists, the most popular musical group you’ve never heard of. In the early 1930s, they were the toast of two continents — “the Beatles of Germany,” according to Barry Manilow’s description. But they're now nearly forgotten.
With their unique blend of precise six-part harmony with physical comedy and knockout dancing, they made a string of popular films, headlined shows with their names above Marlene Dietrich’s and toured extensively in Europe and the United States to promote their recordings.
After the pop songwriter’s frequent writing partner, Bruce Sussman, saw a German television documentary on the group, the two set out to bring their story to the stage. “Harmony” had a 1997 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, and after a tussle with the original producers who failed to showcase it on Broadway in 2003, the musical was staged at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and then returned to California, at the Ahmanson Theatre — a near 17-year development journey.
The story of the Comedian Harmonists is certainly engaging. With the help of a famous fan, the composer Richard Strauss, the group suddenly becomes hot. With the rise of the Third Reich, the group's future is doomed. Some of the group members are Jewish, and their songs and dancing involve African-American- and Gypsy-inspired “degenerate elements," according to their Nazi detractors.
Under seamless direction from Tony Speciale, the performances soar. And choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter stages spectacular dances infused with Jazz Age syncopation.
The glaring problem is the script. Act 1 is all background, and Act 2 clumsily reviews the tension with the Nazis. One of the wives is a strident Emma Goldman-type who is jailed, and there’s a steely backstage visit with a German soldier and his wife, who asks for an album to be autographed.
The many opportunities for compelling dramatic storytelling are not fully developed, and there’s little empathy developed for the characters. As soon as one actor breaks the fourth wall to serve as narrator, it’s a sure sign the writers know there’s a major problem in the storytelling.
The tone of Manilow’s songs is just right, but with this weak script, there’s little opportunity to write character-driven songs.
Ultimately, “Harmony” surprises in the least appealing way: so much potential, so much talent and so little beguiling achievement.