Soul Doctor – The Rock Star Rabbi Needs a Shake Up

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By: Sandi Durell

 

There’s a new, trimmed down version of the recent 2013 Broadway musical (that didn’t last long) about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who braved and violated the strict Judaic rules and the Hassidic sect, led by Rabbi Schneerson, in order to reach the pop rock culture, one at a time. He did it by learning to play the guitar and reaching out to young people in a language they could understand.

In production at the Actors Temple Theatre (a right and proper place), it has little resemblance to the 2 ½ hour musical I saw at Circle in the Square.

The problem here is that the kishkes (Jewish word for guts, intestines) have been removed, leaving a 95 minute shell that barely touches the surface nor has much spark, with attempts at jokes that never land. This is a completely new, (except for Dianna Barger who plays Ruth, Schlomo’s love interest, who was in the Broadway production) uneven, large cast for the small stage.

The storyline remains the same, but scaled down, touching on young Schlomo (Hayden Wall, who can barely be heard at times, and also plays a young Yeshiva boy, Joel) who must leave Vienna with his family to escape the Nazis. Coming to America, his Rabbi father (Don Meehan) establishes a Yeshiva, his friend from Vienna Reb Pinchas (Anthony Laciura, who also plays Moisheleh),takes on the role of the stern Cantor, while Schlomo’s brother Eli (Jabob Heimer) goes off to follow the Hassidim corralling Schlomo to join in. But young Schlomo, after wandering into a jazz club and meeting Nina Simone (a very well cast, strong voiced Dan’yelle Williamson) sees the path he must follow to attract the youth of the 50s. Simone becomes his mentor and soul sister as they exchange life stories and realize they’re not very different in their struggles and that music is what heals and keeps them alive.

Schlomo is played by Josh Nelson (a performer-composer of modern Jewish music),who has a pleasant pop style but needs work on his acting skills.

The music is based on songs composed (with additional lyrics) by Carlebach and lyrics by David Schechter, and on a book written by Daniel S. Wise. Except for the Simone song “I Put A Spell On You” and “Feelin’ Good,” all songs are original Carlebach.

The joyful mantra “Ki Va Moed” is repeated several times and there are uplifting moments of song and dance production numbers (The Storefront Gospel Church), choreographed by Mindy Cooper who also directs. This production is all about the music as Schlomo gathers his hippie groupies in an untraditional way becoming the father of Jewish pop music.

The racially mixed cast is dressed by Tristan Raines and the limited scenic design created by David Goldstein, with projections by Brad Peterson and lighting by Zach Blane with sound by Raymond Schilke.

Unfortunately, the passion and pizzazz have been lost in this scaled down production that seems like one step up from a community theater production.

Photos: Carol Rosegg

“Soul Doctor” – Actors Temple Theatre 339 West 47th Street, NYC  Tickets: 212 239-6200

 

 

 

 

 

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