|Eric Anderson and Amber Iman. Photo: Carol Rosegg|
By Lauren Yarger
The story of real-life Shlomo Carlebach, the singing rabbi who came to fame during the turbulent 1960s, is the focus of the new Broadway musical Soul Doctor, but apart from enjoying a bunch of tunes from him and his friend and fellow singer, Nina Simone, the "High Priestess of Soul," the on-the-surface story doesn't take us deep enough into the characters for a true healing.
Conceived by Jeremy Chess, created by David Schechter (who writes lyrics) with a book by Daniel S. Wise (who directs), Soul Doctor faces many of the same problems so many playwrights have when trying to transfer a real person's story to stage. They want to remain true to the real story, so they feel they need to tell as much of it as possible, but that's not the structure of a stage play. The important events have to be told, but the relationships are what make the story sing. Soul Doctor is heavy on events, but the characters and relationships aren't defined enough.
The show starts with Shlomo (Eric Anderson, who was nominated for a Drama Desk last season for creating the role off Broadway) returning to his native Vienna in 1972 to play a concert amidst protests by those who beg him to remember the horrors that occurred there 40 years ago for the Jewish people. It's used as an intro to "let me tell you a story" and a jump back to 1938 Vienna Square where a young Shlomo (Teddy Walsh) witnesses the shooting of a Jewish man simply because he was singing in the street. Apparently this inspires Shlomo to reach out to people in song.
The notion doesn't go over well with his family: Mother (Jaqueline Antaramian), Father (Jaime Jackson), an Orthodox Rabbi, and brother Eli Chaim (Ethan Khusidman pays the younger; Ryan Strand plays the older version). The Rabbi decides to move his family to the United States, away from Hitler's threat.
He establishes a small temple in Brooklyn, where the boys' former teacher, Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach) joins them as cantor. Eli Chaim's affiliation with some more liberal Chassidic Jews already is too much for the traditional family to accept, so when Shlomo decides to compose "modern" music for the service, there is trouble to pay and the cantor is fired. (He really thought a non-traditional song would go over?)
Shlomo is "called" to try to reach the poor in soul and pocket with his songs. He is drawn by the music in a nightclub where black singer Nina (Amber Iman) is playing. They find they have a lot in common -- both have been discriminated against, both have seen their places of worship burned out of hate -- and a lifelong friendship forms. Apparently they become romantically attached too, but we aren't sure why. Shlomo goes from not being able to touch a woman who isn't his wife, because it is forbidden by his religion, to suddenly being OK with being kissed by her. Again, the whys aren't given much examination.
Eventually, Shlomo attracts the attention of record producer Milt Okun (Michael Paternostro) who goes on to make Shlomo the "King of Kosher Music." Shlomo goes on to California where he establishes the House of Love and Prayer, a temple for his hippie followers known as "holy beggers" who enjoy his music and try to survive the love-flower culture that promotes drugs and free sex. One groupie, Ruth (a vocally struggling Zarah Mahler), follows him around and eventually confesses her love for Shlomo, who apparently has been oblivious to her obvious affection....
Shlomo's life certainly is interesting enough, but this story doesn't give enough details (even with input from his daughter, Esther Nashama Tehora Shucha Carlebach) about him, about why he didn't feel called to be a great rabbi and Torah scholar as was the destiny expected of him. Why did he feel called to ministering to the rock and roll generation when he couldn't even play the guitar at first. What exactly was the relationship between him and Nina and how did he decide to take that leap? The relationship was taboo not only because of his relationship, but because of its inter-racial makeup at the time. Not to mention she also was a Baptist....
We end up not really knowing and our souls aren't healed. Sort of like hearing "take two aspirin and call me in the morning" from a doctor from whom you were hoping to hear some rich advice. Many in the audience the night I attended wore yarmulkes and seemed to know a lot of the songs, clapping along with them. Shlomo, after all, recorded more than 25 albums and is considered one of the biggest influences on Jewish music in the 20th century.
There's just not enough meat to this story for people in the 21st century who don't know anything about him.
Wise goes for the dramatic with some slow motion and exaggerated facial expression (the little kids are in Nazi Germany and probably shouldn't smile winsomely). Highlights are Anderson's solid performance and Iman's smooth, dreamy vocals.
Soul Doctor plays at Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Tickets and info: www.SoulDoctorBroadway.com.
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-- God's name taken in vain