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Off Broadway Reviews

Suffs / Harmony

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - April 17, 2022


Ally Bonino, Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Hannah Cruz,
and Nadia Dandashi

Photo by Joan Marcus
The American suffragists of the early twentieth century understood the importance of theatricality and spectacle. In order to attract the attention of the press, the fearless women activists behind the 19th amendment declared, "We must dress in white so we stand out in photographs." The suffrage parades and rallies, which also made use of white horses, burning effigies of the U.S. president, and silent protest are on full display in Suffs, Shaina Taub's new musical now running at the Public Theater.

Several blocks south, another musical taking a deep dive into history's archive demonstrates the use of popular entertainment as a tool to reveal and speak out against social injustice. Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's Harmony is getting a long-awaited New York premiere by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The show centers around the Comedian Harmonists, a group of men singers who were a headline act in Europe during the rise of Nazism. Unlike the suffragists, the harmonists did not set out to make history and effect change: They were swept up in it. Seeing these shows on consecutive nights, though, reminded me of the ways in which politics, pageantry and performance are tightly intertwined.

I have often said–because it's true–that nearly everything I know about history I learned from the theatre. I am familiar, for example, with nineteenth century suffragist Susan B. Anthony through Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's opera The Mother of Us All. I was not, however, intimately acquainted with the generation of feminists who secured the vote for women in 1920. Suffs exposes the movement's internal and external battles waged in the efforts for voting equality. Alice Paul (Taub, a wonderful spitfire) is an outspoken and singular-minded fighter, who is part of a new generation of progressives taking the reins from her forebears, here represented by Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella, excellent). Working alongside fellow Suffs, including Lucy Burns (a stalwart Ally Bonino), Ruza Wenclawska (a fiery Hannah Cruz), and Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo in gorgeous voice), Paul confronts systemic misogyny and a wily President Woodrow Wilson (a loose-limbed and hilarious Grace McLean).

Taub's jam-packed book also examines the racial and class tensions that gave first-wave feminism a reputation as a white, middle-class crusade. Women like Ida B. Wells (fiercely performed by Nikki M. James), Mary Church Terrell (a terrific Aurelia Williams stepping in at the performance I attended) and her daughter Phyllis Terrell (J. Riley Jr., suitably cheery) simultaneously pressed for gender equality and anti-lynching laws, but were told that their cause necessarily would be delayed. Wells articulates the frustration in the forceful "Wait My Turn," singing, "Guess who always waits her turn?/ Who always ends up in the back?/ Us lucky ones born both female and Black."

Rich with melody, Taub's score makes use of period-inflected vaudeville numbers, especially for Woodrow Wilson. (Natasha Katz's lighting and Toni-Leslie James's costumes perfectly delineate the social realism and fanciful histrionics.) There are also a few pop-infused ballads. One of these, "If We Were Married," is sweetly sung by suffragist Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) and Wilson's protégé Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock), who provide the romantic heart of the musical. In addition, there are a number of anthems and (naturally) songs of protest, such as "The Young are at the Gates."

In chronicling the decade-long (and arguably, ongoing) gender revolution and its presentation of the founding mothers, Suffs inevitably evokes comparisons with Hamilton with its emphasis on the national revolution and the roles of the founding fathers in it. As characters, Paul and Hamilton share youth and scrappiness, but Paul does not have the same access to power as her male counterpoint. As she sings, "Why was I born with a voice this loud/ But a mouth the world wants to keep shut?," Suffs also provides a counterpoint of sorts to Hamilton's "The Room Where It Happens." The 19th amendment was quietly signed without fanfare or visual documentation, and the warriors plaintively sing, "I Wasn't There."

The production features some of the finest musical theatre performers currently working, and director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly give each woman in the 20-member company a chance to shine. Ultimately, though, this is a show that seems to try too hard, and although perhaps appropriate for the material, there is a relentlessness about the musical. In its breadth and expansiveness (here emphasized by Mimi Lien's grand scenic design, featuring an imposing Federal-style government building), there is not a chance to get to know the women as much more than mouthpieces and types. Tellingly, when a major character dies in the first act, it is hard to feel moved because she seems more of a device than a fully drawn character.


Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld,
Eric Peters, Sean Bell, and Chip Zien

Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
If Suffs calls to mind Hamilton, Harmony, on the surface, seems to be a cross between Jersey Boys and Cabaret. The musical is narrated by Rabbi (Chip Zien), the only surviving member of the group, who lived until 1988. The long set-up involves a montage in which Harry (Matthew Mucha substituting for Zal Owen), an ambitious orchestra leader, forms the singing sextet. The men come from different backgrounds and walks of life, and the members include: Bulgarian waiter Lesh (Steven Telsey); medical student Erich (Eric Peters); pianist, self-named Chopin (Blake Roman); opera singer Bobby (Sean Bell); and the narrator's younger self, a cantor's son who goes by the name of Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld).

The boys are nothing if not resilient, and when an act of anti-Semitism almost derails their debut at a posh nightclub, the refined singers become a comedy act, calling themselves the Comedian Harmonists. In a short time, they become the toast of Europe and enjoy a triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1933. The first act ends with the group deciding that, even as the political situation in Germany worsens, they will return to Europe.

The show concomitantly creates the necessary suspense and movingly shows the impact of the rise of fascism on the group. Sussman artfully balances the historical backdrop and biographical elements while individualizing each group member. Like Suffs, Harmony paints on a big canvas, but the relationships are clearer and more convincing. For instance, the loving marriage of Rabbi and the always pragmatic Mary (Sierra Boggess) is contrasted by the stormy relationship of Chopin and socialist firebrand Ruth (Jessie Davidson).

Manilow and Sussman's songs are excellent, and they range from big, swoony ballads like "Every Single Day" to grand, euphonious compositions such as "Harmony," "Home," and "Stars in the Night." There are also some comic and pastiche ditties, notably for an elaborate Ziegfeld Follies production number called "We're Goin' Loco!" featuring Josephine Baker (Ana Hoffman). Many of the songs, particularly for the show-within-the-show scenes, cleverly and satirically comment on the frightening circumstances in pre-War Europe. In this regard the musical is similar to Cabaret, and Beowulf Borritt's mirror scenic design creatively pays homage to Boris Aronson's original. (Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie's costumes, batwin and robin productions' video design, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting contribute to the rich period detail.)

If the across-the-board excellent singers and actors give marvelous voice to Manilow and Sussman's songs and dialogue, director and choreographer Warren Carlyle bring them to vivid and vibrant life. For a show that confronts one of the darkest epochs in world history, Carlyle masterfully mines humor, technicolor zaniness, and indomitable human spirit while allowing the pathos to emerge without schmaltz.

Carlyle receives topnotch support from Zien, who serves as a mischievous emcee for the evening. Not only is he a gregarious narrator, he also provides rueful commentary on the events as they unfold. In a tour de force performance, Zien brilliantly pulls off a number of lightning quick-changes. Throughout the show, he steps into several different parts in the story, including a hilarious Marlene Dietrich, Maestro Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein, and a harried film director. Zien is given the eleven o'clock number, and it is a thrilling experience. Here is a musical theatre performer with decades of musical highs, and miraculously, he hits new heights in Harmony.

As the country faces dire domestic problems, notably the attack on voting rights and attempts to limit women's reproductive choices, as well as international dilemmas, principally those caused by a monstrous dictator wreaking havoc in Europe, the stories of the suffragists and harmonists seem as timely as ever. Musicals have the capacity to teach us a great deal about our histories, but tragically, the tune remains the same.

Suffs
Through May 27, 2022
The Public Theater, Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: PublicTheater.org

Harmony
Through May 15, 2022
National Yiddish Theatre at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: NYTF.org


Citizen Wong
Through May 1, 2022
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
A.R.T./New York Theatres, Mezzanine Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: OvationTix.com


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