Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 15, 2013
Soul Doctor Music and additional lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach. Book by Daniel S. Wise. Lyrics by David Schecter. Based on the real life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, grant of rights by Neshama & Nedara Carlebach. Conceived by Jeremy Chess, created & developed by David Schecter and Daniel S. Wise. Additional material by Neshama Carlebach. Directed by Daniel S. Wise. Choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Scenic design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Maggie Morgan. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by John Shivers & David Patridge. Wig & hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations & additional arrangements by Steve Margoshes.
Librettist-director Daniel S. Wise has constructed this jukebox-bio show from the melodies of Shlomo Carlebach, who blended his background as an Orthodox rabbi with the pop music of the mid-20th century to bring his views of spirituality into the mainstream culture. Wise posits that Carlebach's one-of-a-kind success was due to his being inspired by then-up-and-coming jazz singer Nina Simone, after the two met in a piano-bar dive in the late 1950s and began a forbidden friendship that skirted with scandal but may or may not have run somewhat deeper.
But despite the tantalizing possibilities suggested by this premise, Wise's execution is mind-numbingly conventional. We meet Shlomo (Eric Anderson) giving a homecoming concert in Vienna in 1972, the first time he's set foot in the city in decades. Within seconds we've tripped back 34 years to see not only Vienna of his childhood on the brink of Anschluss, but also Shlomo in the doldrums enforced by the encroaching Nazis, the convention imposed by his dictatorial father (Jamie Jackson), and "cantor from hell" Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach) demanding that the artistically minded boy abandon his instincts and instead conform to millennia of tradition.
Already there's nothing new here, and the little that unfolds as Shlomo moves with his family to America, strikes out on his own, and courts a career that causes rifts within every relationship in his life seems much fresher. (Who could possibly have guessed that Shlomo would have a disapproving, overbearing mother?) By the time Shlomo actually meets Nina (Amber Iman) and the two begin exchanging their histories and theories on the role of music in the worship of everyday existence, catatonia has already set in. Once the end of Act One hits and Shlomo ignites his recording career at the last possible moment (after 48 failed tries in the studio) by — yes — learning the importance of being true to himself, hopes of any kind of vitalizing originality or insight evaporate forever.
Wise drops just enough hints to persuade you that something more fascinating may, in fact, be waiting around the corner — what Shlomo's flirtation with Hasidism meant for his life and music, for example, or how he infiltrated the San Francisco hippie culture — but he declines to follow through on most of them in a satisfying way. Much more frequent are Shlomo's arguments with Dad, which naturally must be left unresolved to haunt our hero forever, and hand-wringing about violating sacred precepts such as fraternizing with women (even to the extent of touching or sitting with women), which is of course discarded as soon as the narrative needs to advance. It all becomes infuriatingly convenient after a while, and it never feels organic.
Based on Soul Doctor's overall structure, style, and tone, Wise was apparently attempting to investigate (or perhaps critique) the eternal symbiosis between faith and music, and whether maintaining that bond is realistic — or desirable — in the modern world. That would have made for an excellent story, and one that would, in its own way, be as universal as that of the gold standard for this type of musical, Fiddler on the Roof. But without a clever, in-depth book, that becomes more difficult. Add in the troublesome score, which jumbles together Carlebach's liturgically based music as applied with new lyrics (by David Schechter) with Simone's own songs, and the result is aimed with laserlike precision at but a single sympathetic demographic, and one to which many potential theatregoers (including yours truly) do not belong.
To my ear, most of the songs sounded identical, with the orchestrations (Steve Margoshes) and musical direction (Seth Farber) not contributing to a vivid, constantly evolving texture that might justify the sameness. (Simone's compositions fill out the song stack, but their blending in seamlessly with Carlebach's should not be considered a good thing.) Hoary jokes that all too readily thrust you into the Borscht Belt realm ("You heard of Peter Paul and Mary?", someone asks Shlomo; "I don't know so much the New Testament," he replies), the bland and repetitive twirls and hops of Benoit-Swan Pouffer's choreography, and the ugly Wailing Wall–meets–Haight-Ashbury set (by Neil Patel) don't provide much to love in other areas, either.
Thankfully, Anderson makes an energetic lead. If he's too lightweight of a presence to project the kind of sensible, grounded realism that videos reveal from the real Carlebach (he died in 1994), Anderson wields a definite likability that's a genuine asset at the center of a musical such as this one. Iman's performance is on the general side, and doesn't evoke much of Simone's own greatness, but she's sufficiently charismatic on her own terms for what's required of her. Aside from Zarah Mahler, who brings an admirable intensity to Shlomo's eventual lover Ruth, the performances are otherwise as unconvincing and unremarkable as the show that surrounds them.
This demonstrates the danger of building a show like this around a personality with whom most people won't be familiar: The creators need to demonstrate to a potentially skeptical public why that person's story is worth telling. For all the ambition and hard work that are clearly evident, Wise has not done that — Carlebach's accomplishments could be anyone's, and his rise to fame from fecklessness does not impart many lessons we haven't heard countless times before. A successful run Off-Broadway a year ago proves that there is definitely interest in Carlebach, what he did, and how he did it. But if you're not already steeped in his world and music, don't expect Soul Doctor to be compelling enough to convert you.