Soul Doctor: The Shlomo Carlebach Musical

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    August 1, 2012

    The first thing you may want to do is take a pair of scissors to this show. It is l-o-n-g. It clocks in at over two hours with 40 musical numbers. Not to be out done by its own self, however, this play packs more charm per square inch than should be allowed by law.

    The source of all this charm is Eric Anderson, the actor who plays Shlomo Carelbach, the “Rock Star Rabbi”. Eric Anderson is exploding with a huge voice, which will knock out the back wall of the theatre any day now, combined with a clarity of purpose and simplicity of style. And, get this – his eyes twinkle. Seriously.

    In the 1960’s Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach was a big deal on the folk circuit. As a young man he was a devoted Talmud scholar living in Vienna. When his parents saw which way the wind was blowing they emigrated to New York where Shlomo’s father set up a new school and created a new community. This was not simple and not without pain. Living in a new country – with no cell phones, computers or Internet, can you imagine - is shattering enough without thinking of the people you left behind in more than uncertain circumstances.

    To add a little excitement to the mixture, Shlomo begins to feel the pull of other people and other cultures in New York city. There is a world outside of the temple and he is drawn to mark his place in it. To begin with he enters a nightclub (off limits) and strikes up a conversation with none other than Nina Simone (Erica Ash). The unlikely pair find common ground in being outsiders who love the language of music. This friendship is the beginning of Shlomo’s entrance into the world – the public secular world – of music.

    The telling of this tale is reminiscent of Hair except the music is mostly Carlebach’s and has s distinct flavor to it. There is a lot of chanting and stomping of feet and rejoicing in that distinctly European Jewish manner. This is a type of music with which I am familiar, but none of this music was known to me. I was clearly a minority in the audience, who not only knew the music but the words and harmonies as well. Think Hootenanny, with a message.

    Carlebach’s appearance at the Berkeley Music festival in 1966, along with Timothy Leary and Bob Dylan among others, soon led him to purchase a house on the corner of Haight and Ashbury – no kidding – where he preached all the tuning in and turning on you wanted. Except he preached it without drugs. Get high on life and on the Lord. Tune into that and you will find all the answers. He collected followers and soon created The Holy Beggars Band that toured the world. In this time he also married, moved to Israel and over time lost his wife and children because he was never home.

    This is an ambitious undertaking with an extraordinary collection of talented actors and musicians. Erica Ash has both a beautiful and compelling with a delivery that speaks beyond her years. She is less confident in the acting department, but that may ease up over time. The rest of the cast, Meredith Kaye Clark in particular, all have moments that shine. And they are supported by a stunning group of musicians who contribute in no small way to the pace and spirit of the evening.

    That being said, as far as content goes - don’t these people, who have invested time and money and love, know that we really don’t care about accuracy? We care about the story. Who is up/Who is down? Who is risking? Who is resisting? Give us a good story with tension and opposing forces and sprinkle enough truth in there for us to get the message.

    This is the pitfall of shows ”based on a true story.” Why the narrative continues to take precedence over creating a good story in this sort of production is baffling.

    The story, as I see it, is – what did it take for Carlebach to break with his family. His father told him You can’t just make up your own Judaism! But that is exactly what Shlomo did. There is the tale, the tension and the trauma. For Carlebach to leave his past and create his own “temple” that spread all over the world is astonishing. It is a mythic tale. Out of exile Carlebach created lyrics directly tethered to his heart:

    TO ALL WHO HAVE WANDERED ALONE
    TO ALL WITH NO PLACE TO CALL HOME
    PLEASE LET ME SING FOR YOU ONE LITTLE PRAYER
    PEACE TO YOU!

    How did he get from exile to Rabbi of Everywhere? There are so many layers to the answer it makes your head spin.

    These writers, however, have chosen discard digging deep into this question and instead go wide – giving us the facts, the straight story (or so it appears), and as such it misses an opportunity to blow the roof off the joint. For this show to make it on Broadway, the skills of a good midwife/dramaturge are needed. Without this sort of editing, Soul Doctor may still get uptown and succeed financially based on the fact that this is a compelling story that has been a magnificent underground secret in the Jewish community. But if re-writes are applied, it could be an iconic show.

    Why settle for good when you could be great?

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Safe, mechanical portrait of a fascinating cultural figure."
    Jason Zinoman for New York Times

    "High-spirited and tuneful, but long and cumbersome."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "A choppy, episodic structure that often resembles a pageant rather than a cohesive musical."
    Frank Scheck for New York Post

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

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