Sound Advice Reviews
Harnar & Harmony
In the self-penned liner notes for his punnily titled new recording, A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman, the singer mentions that he'd asked his parents to buy him the original Broadway cast album of Sweet Charity. They did. And he was quite the happy and appreciative fan–at the ripe old age of seven. As he grew, so did his admiration for composer Coleman's oeuvre, and his latest release shows his affinity for it. While the set samples many scores and stand-alone songs, Sweet Charity (Coleman/ Dorothy Fields) is the most represented. There's "If My Friends Could See Me Now" getting an interpretation that's maturely reflective with quiet awe rather than its usual rounds of razzle-dazzled joy. "Rhythm of Life" is a zippy tour de force vocal trio as he's joined in high-spirited energy by Nicolas King and Danny Bacher (who also plays sax). "My Personal Property," added for the movie version, practically bursts with delight and is topped off with lines written for "My City" from another musical by the same writing team, Seesaw.
In abundant evidence are the scope and versatility of both the composer and this polished cabaret veteran. His assured performances show immersion in the music and ownership of the lyrics. There's the grand scale of "With Every Breath I Take" (City of Angels), which builds dramatically to a full-throated and passionate conclusion, contrasting with the wistful "So Little Time," cut from the score of Barnum. In elegant mode, the Harnar tones blend blissfully with the shimmering voice of Liz Callaway, bringing added glow and glamor to "Our Private World" from On the Twentieth Century. (Back in the twentieth century itself, the two had co-starred in their high school production of Kismet, by the way.)
Vulnerability comes through in "It Amazes Me," with the sensitive guitar accompaniment of Sean Harkness. And there are also playful and slinky endeavors that transmit a wink and a grin, such as: the solo "You Fascinate Me So"; a deft duet with Ann Hampton Callaway on the Little Me number called "I've Got Your Number"; and the cutely breezy "A Doodlin' Song" with the voices of bassist Jay Leonhart and pianist/arranger/orchestrator/conductor Alex Rybeck cheerily chiming in. The last four selections named have words by Carolyn Leigh; about half the songs here have her nimble lyrics, from her collaborations with Coleman for shows and the pop market.
There are 15 musicians in all and the arrangements and orchestrations are full of creativity and panache, some more novel than others, so that it's a rewarding mix of satisfying tradition and invigorating surprise. Jeff Harnar's schedule has him performing the Cy Coleman material this month in various cities, including a night at Birdland on October 2 in his home base of Manhattan and then he'll be a singing co-host for the first night of the annual Cabaret Convention concerts in the city on October 17.
A Collective Cy is a splendid cross-section of the composer's jazzy and theatrical works, whether you're a long-time music fan who remembers them from stage encounters and vinyl records or more recently came across them wafting through Cy-berspace, they seem timeless when done with such vitality and care. That's the happy case this time.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the most consistently satisfying asset of the cast recording of the musical Harmony might just be the ear-pleasing quality summed up as the noun that is its title. It's just so rewarding to relish the sounds of the bright blend when those six gentlemen–Danny Kornfeld, Sean Bell, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Zal Owen, and Steven Telsey–portraying the members of the real-life vocal group The Comedian Harmonists raise their voices in song, whether it's a splashy number–like the earwormy, uber-enthused title song or "Come to the Fatherland" that comes with poison arrows aimed at its pseudo-nationalism–or the delicate finale, "Stars in the Night." But there's more to attend to and praise.
If you're coming to the score fresh, more than a few tracks of the recording may seem hard-sell and overblown on first hearing. Emotions and arrangements are BIG. These sometimes recall the earnestness and "pow" factor of composer Barry Manilow's ace-in-the-hole trademark key modulations and climaxes employed on his own pop records over the years. "Subtle" isn't an adjective that comes to mind, but the intensity is justified in context of high-stakes moments of the plot and there's electricity there, too. It isn't fair or accurate to describe the material as being undistinguished or indistinguishable from the frothier, hook-happy commercial hits and tear-stained ballads of Manilow, some of which had words by his lyricist/bookwriter partner here, Bruce Sussman. This is musical theatre, with a palette that more resembles (at times) characteristics of the cheerier bounce of Jerry Herman and the broad strokes of Frank Wildhorn-esque melodrama.
Some familiarity with facts about the singing group from Germany with some Jewish members that eventually had to "face the music" that was the reality of the Nazi regime helps foster appreciation. The recording is only available digitally now, but perhaps the CD version, being released just before the show officially opens on Broadway in November, will have a booklet with background info and a plot synopsis. There is some dialog included and attentive listeners can still get the general outlines of what's happening, even if they haven't known much about the show that's had an on-again/off-again road to the grand road of Broadway, with productions over the years and previewed on disc with Barry Manilow singing seven of the numbers back on his album Scores. That was back in 2004, seven years after its first stage mounting in California.
The new release features lead cast members retained from the 2022 off-Broadway production and two women who will be joining them on Broadway: Allison Semmes, who plays, with vim galore, the legendary Josephine Baker in a wild number with the guys called "We're Goin' Loco!"; and Julie Benko, who is a knockout as she sings with all-stops-out sincerity for heart-on-sleeve pleading. So does Sierra Boggess–and the dramatic declaration of devotion, "Where You Go," brings their throbbing voices together in a stunning conclusion.
I grinned a lot hearing the smartly done early group number that pluckily presents the plan to pursue show biz, "Your Son Is Becoming a Singer." And I shuddered a lot hearing "Threnody," an especially harrowing section that includes Chip Zien's anguish-filled lines about an incident that we need not reveal as a spoiler here. (In the guise of an older version of the character played with verve by Danny Kornfeld, he's also the narrator of the piece on stage.)
Harmony is a mix of high drama and hijinks, gearing up for previews to begin on October 18 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which opened with a play called The Kingdom of God starring Ethel Barrymore, 95 years ago–within months of the time the real Comedian Harmonists were making their own debut.