News Column

The Tale of a Feel-Good Musical Messiah

August 16, 2013

YellowBrix

THEATER REVIEW

SOUL DOCTOR

New Broadway musical, at the Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.

Book by Daniel S. Wise. Music by Shlomo Carlebach. Lyrics by David Schechter and Carlebach. Directed by Wise.

With Eric Anderson and Amber Iman.

Schedule: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $39 to $135. 212-239-6200, or telecharge.com.

"Soul Doctor," which opened Thursday night at the Circle in the Square, is about a challenge to tradition; it celebrates a new way of doing things.

But the musical itself couldn't be more old-fashioned and unadventurous. It's content to tell its story through cliches and creaky theatrical devices.

Written by Daniel S. Wise, who misguidedly served as his own director, the show is a biography of the rebellious Shlomo Carlebach, a rabbi who defied his Orthodox Jewish background -- and alienated his rabbi father -- by becoming an entertainer and hippie Jewish guru.

(In its sentimental telling, the story strongly resembles "The Jazz Singer," Samson Raphaelson's 1925 drama that achieved immortality two years later as the first full-length talking movie, with Al Jolson playing a cantor's son who breaks his father's heart by becoming a popular singer.)

Carlebach, played likably -- and sung well -- by Eric Anderson, was a fascinating figure, straddling the line between pop success and religious devotion, and achieving the status among his followers of a feel-good messiah. (His most lasting artistic successes are the Torah verses he set to music.)

The show, though, is content to tiptoe over the surface of his life, not caring to examine what made him tick.

It begins with his childhood in Vienna in the 1930s. Carlebach's father (Jamie Jackson) is presented as a standard good and pious man. His mother (Jacqueline Antaramian) is a burlesque of a character: a dispenser of one-liners, with more wheezing jokes than Jay Leno.

When young Shlomo and his brother play on the Sabbath, they're admonished by their religious teacher (Ron Orbach) -- the musical's bad guy, and Shlomo's disapproving nemesis throughout his life -- who says Jews are meant to suffer, not have fun; that's for gentiles. Boy, is Shlomo going to prove him wrong!

The family moves to America, and while Carlebach proves a brilliant religious scholar, he feels the tug of his desire to make music, and to bring the message of compassion to his co- religionists and the rest of the world.

Since this coincides with the advent of the love-and-peace era, Carlebach fits right in. (He ran the House of Love and Prayer, a combination synagogue and commune, in San Francisco's Haight- Ashbury district. In his absence, we see his followers drop acid, getting high for the High Holy Days.)

On his journey, Carlebach meets a young Nina Simone (a scintillating Amber Iman), and the questioning Jewish singer- songwriter and the frustrated African-American pianist-vocalist become friends.

Among the restraints Carlebach broke through was the Orthodox tenet that men and women be physically separated. He goes from a man who shies away from touching a female to smooching Simone in record time.

Carlebach subsequently became known as a serial hugger, physically, as well as emotionally, embracing everyone he met. (After his death in 1994, several women accused him of going further, charging him with sexual harassment and abuse. But this celebratory show is not about to go there.)

Much is made of Carlebach displeasing his parents by not marrying and having a family; his stock response, however -- he's too busy and too committed to his followers to wed -- is accepted at face value. He does have an ambiguous relationship with a lady friend (Zarah Mahler).

Sloppily, the show fails to mention that he eventually marries, in his late 40s, and has two daughters.

Another misstep in the production is a big revival scene in a black storefront church: The excitement is undercut by having the parishioners played by square-looking white people (the result, no doubt, of a limited budget, which has actors playing multiple roles).

The music of Shlomo Carlebach is appropriately honored in "Soul Doctor," but the show is wanting in almost every other aspect.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.


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