Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rock-Star Rabbi

  • Our critic's rating:
    October 1, 2013

    SOUL DOCTOR, the Journey of Shlomo Carlebach, the Rockstar Rabbi, is a taste of MEMPHIS meets HAIR meets FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and toss in a little GODSPELL on the side. The music, a highlight in this production, is a gift of Shlomo Carlebach’s own soulful music. This lovely story was created by David Schecter (lyrics) and Daniel S.Wise (director/ book/libretto).

    The passion and sincerity with which Eric Anderson portrays the controversial Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in SOUL DOCTOR, is magical and inspiring. It will leave you grinning from ear to ear as you witness his commanding performance, the smile lasting for many hours afterwards. Mr. Anderson is earnest, delightful and sincere in the title role, effectively and competently driving this show throughout the production. He is missed when he is off-stage, and the show loses some momentum, waiting for his next entrance when it will accelerate again to cruising speed.

    After a rather upbeat and enthusiastic opening scene, which was too quick to capture my immediate interest, Soul Doctor gets off to a slow start. This is the fault of keeping the story true to the reality of the Carlebach’s need to leave Vienna during the holocaust, escaping Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, and moving to New York. There is no way to celebrate this depressing part of history without emotionally draining any audience. However, much to the credit of Daniel S. Wise’s commanding book/libretto and his attuned, savvy and powerful direction, it recovers nicely from this period of despair. There are a few comedic lines delivered to lighten the material, and spirits begin to rise once the Carlebach family has safely moved into a home in Brooklyn.

    The party truly begins when we are fast-forwarded to 1957 and Shlomo has the good fortune to wander into a piano bar and enjoy a musical performance by Nina Simone, played gloriously by Amber Iman, her smoky vocals, the perfect blend of soulful sophistication and elegant sexiness. This scene catapults Soul Doctor from slow moving into overdrive. There is such a comforting chemistry between Nina and “Shay-li-mo” –as she, playfully calls him, to the audience’s delight, throughout much of the remainder of the play. The couple barely touch, yet their friendship, love and affection is palpable, and a testament to how seamlessly these actors not only become their characters, but think their character’s thoughts.

    The pair instantly realizes they have much in common during this initial meeting. Nina was raised in the south, a colored girl treated with no equality by the racist whites. While Shlomo was enjoying a happy childhood with his family in Vienna, until Hitler marched in and changed the course of their lives. Her family’s church burned to the ground because they were black, his father’s synagogue set on fire because they were Jews. A bond is formed by their empathy and solidified by their love of music. Shlomo had silenced his love for music during his most difficult years, while Nina used hers as a form of escape, embraced her love of music and allowed it to flourish. Nina welcomes Shlomo into this warmth, and in a valiant attempt to share her musical passion with this interesting man, invites him to a revival meeting. Shlomo enthusiastically accepts this invitation. Coincidentally, the address she gives him is adjacent to his synagogue. She explains that the address is a small storefront Church. Shlomo counters with the obvious, that a rabbi, attending a revival meeting in a Christian church would be even more astonishing than that same rabbi listening to jazz music in a piano bar. When she asks what “his people” have against going into a Church, he quips with “maybe it’s something about that rabbi nailed up to the cross”.

    This encounter changed both of their lives. Shlomo makes some very tough decisions, which simultaneously yield joyful and devastating results. This rabbi mixes his religion with folksy rock music, during a love revolution, and the consequences are mind bending. His hippie followers rejoice in all of his glory, yet his family is disgraced. While Nina, at Shlomo’s urging, pursues her dream of performing at Carnegie Hall.

    There are some 35 musical numbers in the show. I was unfamiliar with the music, but the audience seemed keenly accustomed to it, humming along, hand clapping, arm waving--much like a revival meeting. There was certainly joy in the packed audience, and it was contagious! People around me were talking about Shlomo as if he had been their neighbor. I heard audience members recounting personal stories during intermission. This man made a difference, and this show tells part of his story in a way that seems to resonate with his followers, theater lovers and musicians alike.

    The entire cast is magnificent and many actors believably portray several characters, quickly slipping in and out of roles (and costumes) in less time than it takes most audience members to power down their cell phones. This was a respectful audience, who appreciated every move made by this talented, and extremely well-directed ensemble. Jacqueline Antaramian and Jamie Jackson were formidable in their roles as Shlomo’s mother and father, carefully calculating the perfect blend of love and pain. Teddy Walsh (at the performance I attended ) was impressive in the role of young Shlomo, playing a child’s mixed and muddled emotions during tragic times with a sophistication unexpected in someone so young. Ethan Khusidman, young Eli Chaim in this performance, was equally adorable and imposing in his roles.

    Daniel S. Wise skillfully mastered the task of writing this book/libretto, and directing a sound production. I am certain that every word, song, and movement was lovingly considered. His passion for this project is evident. David Schecter, the show’s lyricist, created and developed this powerful production along with Wise, and they carefully nurtured the music and real life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, almost as if they were working under his tutelage. Their respect and ardor toward this project and this man is evident.

    The choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer is perfect for this type of musical, using full use of a rather crowded stage, and having this fine ensemble of actors, dancers and musicians perform some of their most memorable numbers up close and personal with the audience. We were used as if we part of the cause and were so caught up in being included, that we were all mindlessly brought to our feet, and ready to join in the fun and love and stuff.

    "A bizarre and at times bewildering musical."
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "Clumsy, finesse-free storytelling does zip to put the rose in the cheeks of this 'Soul Doctor.'"
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Terminally earnest and relentlessly sunny."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Those intrigued by this passionately performed niche entertainment shouldn’t dawdle. For the less choosy of the chosen people, the musical hits the spot."
    Philip Boroff for Bloomberg

    "Old-fashioned and unadventurous. It's content to tell its story through clichés and creaky theatrical devices. ... The music of Shlomo Carlebach is appropriately honored in 'Soul Doctor,' but the show is wanting in almost every other aspect."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "It's easy to see how a few sublime moments in an otherwise flawed work could turn this musical about a cult hero into a cult favorite itself."
    Roma Torre for NY!

    "Much as you may try to “open your heart” (as Shlomo often urges everyone) to an obviously well-meant enterprise like “Soul Doctor,” the crude nature of the libretto, score and production make that awfully hard to do."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "The transfer may have been ill-advised.."
    Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter

    "Unless you’re personally into it, there’s entirely too much of this ponderous religious pedantry to keep an audience alert."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety