Soul Doctor: Theater Review

"Soul Doctor"
Infectious Jewish music enlivens this well-meaning but muddled bio-musical.

This new Broadway musical tells the real-life story of Shlomo Carlebach, the "Rock Star Rabbi."

Long before Matisyahu, there was Shlomo Carlebach. This Orthodox Jewish performer, whose catchy moniker was the “Rock Star Rabbi,” delivered an accessible brand of Jewish music that made him an unlikely pop star in the 1960s. He’s the subject of the ambitious new musical Soul Doctor, now premiering on Broadway after earlier regional and off-Broadway runs. But while one can never underestimate the commercial appeal of shows geared to Jewish audiences, the transfer may have been ill-advised.

Bookended by scenes set in Vienna in 1938, when Carlebach (Eric Anderson) witnessed the early horrors of the Holocaust, and 1988, when he returned for the first time to perform an emotionally charged concert, the show depicts his event-filled life. That includes his unlikely friendship with the black singer Nina Simone (Amber Iman), the “High Priestess of Soul,” and a period in the 1960s in which he established himself as a counter-culture figure in hippie-era Haight-Ashbury.

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Director/book writer Daniel S. Wise attempts to cram far too much into the proceedings, which feel much longer than two-and-a-half hours. The choppily episodic storyline is enlivened by some three dozen songs written by Carlebach, mostly featuring new English-language lyrics by David Schlechter. Although simple in structure, they’re undeniably infectious, and their joyous energy does much to fuel the evening.  

The show’s considerable flaws are more glaringly apparent in this Broadway production performed at the Circle in the Square, newly reconfigured with a proscenium stage. The book scenes feature frequently groan-inducing dialogue and bad jokes, and the choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, formerly the artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, contains numerous cliches.

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While the scenes depicting Carlebach’s interactions with the flower-power hippies border on a parody of Hair, the production does succeed in its quieter moments, especially a beautifully written and performed scene depicting his first meeting with Simone at a smoky jazz club where she’s performing such songs as "I Put a Spell on You." Their burgeoning friendship, and the intense bond they discover in their shared love of music, gives the show a true emotional center. Too bad, then, that it isn’t developed more fully.   

Anderson delivers a terrific performance in the central role, beautifully suggesting Carlebach’s gentle, shambling appeal as well as the low-key charisma that made him an unlikely recording star whose output consisted of some 25 albums. He delivers the songs in assured fashion, and is particularly moving in depicting the performer’s struggle to reconcile his progressive brand of Judaism with the traditional beliefs with which he was raised.

Making her Broadway debut, Iman is equally superb as Simone, powerfully conveying the singer’s fierce dignity and saucy humor as well as delivering strong versions of such signature songs as "Sinnerman." Among the large supporting cast, Zarah Mahler is quietly moving as a woman who falls in love with Shlomo, and Ron Orbach scores in several roles ranging from a stern cantor to a hip music producer.

Venue: Circle in the Square, New York City

Cast: Eric Anderson, Amber Iman, Ron Orbach, Jamie Jackson, Jacqueline Antaramian, Michael Paternostro, Ryan Strand, Ethan Khusidman, Teddy Walsh, Jamie Jackson, Zarah Mahler

Direction/book: Daniel S. Wise

Music and additional lyrics: Shlomo Carlebach

Lyrics: David Schechter

Choreographer: Benoit-Swan Pouffer

Set designer: Neil Patel

Costume designer: Maggie Morgan

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Sound designers: John Shivers, David Patridge

Presented by Jeremy Chess, Jerome Levy, Robert Beckwitt, Edward Steinberg, Joel Kahn, Danny Boy Productions