75. SOUL DOCTOR
I have to admit that when I saw the bio-musical SOUL DOCTOR at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop a year ago, I had no idea who its subject, Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), was. I did not know that he was the scion of a line of important German rabbis, or that his parents fled to the United States in 1938 (Shlomo himself actually arrived in 1939) because of Nazi oppression, and that Shlomo not only became a respected orthodox rabbi himself but, despite the strong resistance of his extremely conservative parents and fellow religionists, developed into an international star singing Jewish-themed rock and roll songs of his own creation. Nor did I know that he had a close and influential friendship with black jazz singer Nina Simone, and also created his own hippie commune in San Francisco, The House of Love and Prayer. Friends and relatives who are more in touch with their cultural roots know much more about Shlomo Carlebach than I; only this past Sunday, while dining with cousins, one of them mentioned she had spent an evening with the man. In a Playbill interview, his daughter, Neshama, says: "People on the outside may not know who he was--but, in our world, my father was Elvis." After seeing SOUL DOCTOR in two versions, I'm no longer "on the outside," nor will many others be if the show sticks around.
Eric Anderson and Amber Iman in SOUL DOCTOR.
The Off Broadway production, while imperfect, was a mostly happy introduction to Shlomo’s life, personality, spirituality, and music. And it was graced with two outstanding performances, one by Eric Anderson as the bearded, guitar-playing "Singing Rabbi," and the other by Erica Ashe as Nina Simone. Before its Off Broadway production, it had spent years bouncing around in various incarnations; now, SOUL DOCTOR, advertised as the “journey of a Rockstar Rabbi,” has made it to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre; I'm afraid, though, that something has been lost in transit. Mr. Anderson, who was nominated for a Drama Desk Award, is back, thankfully, as Shlomo, but Ms. Ashe has been replaced by Amber Iman. In fact, nearly the entire cast has been replaced, only Ryan Strand, as Shlomo’s Hasidic brother, Eli Chaim, and Diana Barger, a member of the ensemble, remaining. The show itself has undergone changes, and while I can’t easily document them, I do recall that the second act of the 2012 version depicted Shlomo’s marriage and its aftermath, which appears to have been cut entirely. It’s hard to say whether this is an improvement or not, but the show has created a tighter focus by bookending it with a performance by Shlomo in what the show claims to be his home town of Vienna, a locale that seems the result of dramatic license, since Shlomo was from Berlin and resided only briefly in Vienna in the early 1930s. In the opening scene, he is interrupted by his perpetual religious nemesis, Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), who criticizes him for being so callous as to return to and perform in a city that so mistreated the Jews during World War II. (The show says Shlomo was living in Vienna when he left for the U.S., but Wikipedia has him in Lithuania at the time.) To make the bookending work, the conclusion returns to Shlomo's big concert in Vienna, where his message of peace and love conquers all, and Reb Pinchas (a conflation of the forces opposing Shlomo) is silenced (to the applause of many in the audience).
What hasn’t changed is the overall approach of Daniel Wise's book (he also directed), which, even at two and a half hours (with one intermission), rushes to squeeze in as much of the rabbi’s life as possible. We first see him as child, witnessing a vicious Nazi officer shooting a joyful Hasidic man for singing in the street; then as a young man in New York (with no indication of what he or his family endured to get here). His once authoritative father is reduced to overseeing a dwindling congregation (it was on W. 79th Street), and Shlomo’s efforts to bring his musical gifts to the services as a way of inducing more secular Jews to come to temple are viewed by Reb Pinchas as a disgrace. His brother, Eli Chaim, becomes a Hasid and introduces Shlomo to the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson; while it isn’t clear if he himself becomes a full-fledged Hasid (he doesn’t wear their distinctive clothing, while his brother does), Shlomo definitely follows many of their ways, which, the script emphasizes, involve heavy duty proselytizing ("one by one" also becomes Shlomo's mantra in getting his music accepted.) A few zingers at the expense of the Hasidim make their way into the script, as when Shlomo is warned about consorting with them: “You go to the Hasidim as a tourist, you come back as a tour guide.” I have a relative who might find this particularly funny—or not. (I’ll find out when she reads this review.)
One of the character’s throughlines concerns his extreme discomfort at being alone with a woman, much less touching her, and there are frequent references to the shame he brings to his religion when he appears before audiences in which men and women are not separated. When a photographer catches him giving Nina Simone a kiss, the Jewish press blows it up into huge scandal. (This incident seems conjectural, and, according to Internet sources, the question of whether the pair ever had a physical relationship remains ambiguous.)
The transitions jump simplistically from big life moment to big life moment, so we get Shlomo’s fateful encounter with Nina Simone late at night in a Greenwich Village nightclub, followed by his receiving the gift of a guitar from a blind street singer, and then his instantaneous discovery by a record producer in Washington Square Park, and so on. Much of this has a phony ring to it, as does Shlomo's conversation with Nina in which they share their stories of racial and religious oppression, each seeming far too ignorant of the other’s issues. The Civil Rights movement and the flower-power revolution and hippie drug culture (Timothy Leary [Michael Paternostro] makes a brief appearance) also play significant roles, but always with something ersatz in the way they are depicted.
This being a musical, the music counts the most, and, despite the excellent performances of Mr. Anderson and company, and their joyous, even soulful sound, some of the songs sound too much like one another. The music, mostly in the folk-rock style, but with room for gospel (the Simone influence) as well, was composed by Shlomo, but the lyrics are mostly new, written by Daniel Schechter. Many are there mainly to help sustain the narrative, while the originals, reportedly, were liturgical in nature. Since members of the press were given a song list for the performance and told to ignore the one in the program, there obviously has been some tinkering going on before the official opening. One song, however, “I Put a Spell on You,” sung by Ms. Iman as a way of introducing Nina Simone, is by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, yet no credit for it is listed in the Playbill. Some of the songs will remind you of those upbeat ones you may have heard at a bar mitzvah in a more liberal synagogue, where a cool cantor rocked it to his or her own guitar playing; Shlomo’s songs are said to have become traditional at such affairs.
Despite being done in the Circle in the Square, the show ignores this venue’s race-track shape and recreates almost the same set used downtown last year by placing seats in the oblong space usually used for acting. The audience thus faces a proscenium-like stage, with a slight thrust, at one end of the room. The set itself, designed by Neil Patel, is an open space backed by a second level platform reached on either side by a sweeping staircase, and with a set of beautifully carved, see-through wooden doors up center. At the rear, what seemingly is an indiscriminate mass of bricks and concrete turns out to be a replica of the Wailing Wall. Jeff Croiter’s lighting helps paint the stage with colors redolent of the show’s several periods, including psychedelic impressions suggestive of the sixties, and Maggie Morgan’s costumes help to recreate those bygone days, although her hippie costumes seem too much like a cruise ship version of HAIR.
The staging and choreography (the latter by Benoit-Swan Pouffer) are lively and serviceable, if rather generic. The singing and dancing talents on display give no grounds for complaint, but much of the acting, when the actors have to speak lines rather than sing them, is unimpressive. Mr. Anderson, who plays Shlomo as a shy, awkward introvert for much of the time, makes you believe in him as the fish out of water the real Shlomo presumably was; he adds long hair for his hippie phase and grays his beard as he grows older, but he seems too old and knowing to play Shlomo as an egregiously innocent young man. Still, for a gentile playing a richly ethnic Jew, he is totally convincing. By the way, Shlomo and his brother, Eli Chaim are played as children by Teddy Walsh and Ethan Khusidman; when one is performing as Shlomo, the other is playing Eli, and vice versa. I saw Teddy as Young Shlomo and Ethan as Young Eli Chaim; both kids are excellent. Ms. Iman’s Nina Simone looks and sounds more like the real thing than her predecessor, although both the vocal and physical resemblance are superficial; it's too bad that many of her line readings are flat and uninteresting. Least effective are the actors playing Shlomo’s parents, Jamie Jackson and Jacqueline Antaramian, whose Yiddish accents are strained and clearly counterfeit. But I did like very much Zara Mahler as Ruth, a groupie who attaches herself to Shlomo and has a standout ballad, "I Was a Sparrow."
Judging from the audience’s response, SOUL DOCTOR is a crowd pleaser and should find plenty of interest from both the local and tourist trade. For whatever reasons, I enjoyed it more Off Broadway, when its book seemed fresher, its jokes less corny, its songs more varied, and its themes not so schmaltzy. But despite my kvetching, I suspect many will find their spirits lifted with a shot in the arm from SOUL DOCTOR.