Photos: Carol Rosegg
By: Sandi Durell
This is a musical based on the true life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known as the “Rock Star Rabbi,” and his transforming relationship with legendary jazz artist Nina Simone. I wasn’t familiar with Rabbi Carlebach nor his story, so wasn’t sure what I was about to witness had any appeal other than to a Jewish audience. Well, was I wrong!
This is a triumphant project of musical healing in the Jewish tradition that should be seen by all faiths – believers and non-believers – especially now when the world is in shambles with so much strife and religious unrest.
Are there clichés, does the book by Daniel S. Wise (who also directs) need some fixing? Yes! But the intention is real and speaks to, what I witnessed, a cheering, joyful audience.
The talented cast is led by Eric Anderson (Kinky Boots), whose earnest voice rings out nobly as Shlomo in a strong performance, as he leads us from his boyhood roots in Vienna, growing up with a Rabbi father (Jamie Jackson), a strong-willed mother (Jacqueline Antaramian) and younger brother Eli (Ryan Strand) who flee the Nazi terrorists as the murders and horrors begin to unfold. The Carlebachs land in America – in Brooklyn – where Papa starts up a Yeshiva in 1940.
The strict rules of Judaic Law don’t necessarily attract a younger more contemporary generation of faithfuls. And so when brother Eli becomes involved with a Hassidic sect led by “the Rebbe,” – leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Schneerson, his excitement catches Schlomo’s dream of bringing the Torah learnings to Jewish youth, to somehow attract their attention. However, the separate, but equal rules of the Torah (men and women can’t touch, dance together) are not what the youth of the 50s are interested in hearing, even at Columbia Univ. at the “Rosh Hashanah Rock.” There are many humorously clever lines that are standouts in these scenes and throughout the 2 ½ hour production.
Shlomo sees the reality of his path when he wanders into a jazz club and meets his soul sister Nina Simone (Amber Iman) whose smoky, sexy voice can put a spell on anyone as they banter about race and bigotry, finally coming to the conclusion that each has experienced the same emotional torture and hatred, and they have a lot in common. Their respective worlds change as they sing “Ki Va Moed” in joyous union; Nina saying that he has to come to her revival meeting which puts a whole new spin on his musical direction. The audience joins in the clapping as this, and other, uplifting scenes unfold. Yes, music heals the soul and is the tool that Shlomo uses to gather his groupies and lead them down the path.
The guitar playing-singing-songwriting Carlebach is ostracized by long-time friend of the family and mentor Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), as he is accused of playing the “devil’s music,” but Shlomo is unstoppable in his quest making his way to San Francisco where the young hippies are beginning their own revolution and he says “Let’s join forces!”
Soul Doctor is a little bit “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Fiddler on the Roof” mixed with some funky pop and traditional Klezmer/Jewish music as Anderson, as the energetic enigma, bops up and down strumming his guitar with an open heart and love for all. His music has poetic sounds of prayer, blended with pop, conveying passion and why Carlebach holds title as father of Jewish pop music.
The traditional sounds remain as the choreography, by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, reflects the attractively infused Jewish dance moves. The well-designed costumes are by Maggie Morgan. Scenic design is by Neil Patel – the Wailing Wall especially notable.
All music and lyrics are by Shlomo Carlebach with additional lyrics by David Schechter.
Soul Doctor is a spiritually uplifting musical with an intriguing storyline and, I mean it when I say, you don’t have to be Jewish to get it and feel good when you leave the Circle in the Square Theater. You, too, may choose to look at Soul Doctor as a glass half full.
Circle in the Square 1633 Broadway at 50th St. 800 432-7780, www.telecharge.com