Friday, August 16, 2013

Broadway Theater Review: Soul Doctor

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman. Photo: Carol Rosegg
This One is Bit Hard to Diagnose
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:

Christians might also like to know:
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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