The Music Mensch

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


Soul Doctor could benefit from some, yes, surgery

The key, I have found, to a successful jukebox musical – and by successful, I mean financially lucrative and long-running – is existing audience familiarity with the music. No one would pay Broadway-level prices for a concert if they weren’t already a fan of the artist and their catalog, and they certainly wouldn’t spend Broadway money on an actual Broadway show, which is why Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia continue to dominate the Great White Way and a piercing look at a musical footnote like The Shaggs only merited a limited Off-Broadway run.souldoctor-carolrosegg

So who is the intended audience for a show where the music is largely unknown, let alone religious? And what kind of reach can a show whose subject only appealed to a niche audience have? Thus the improbably Broadway transfer of Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi, written and directed by Daniel S. Wise, which first appeared last year at New York Theatre Workshop and now makes its bow at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Soul stars Eric Anderson as Shlomo Carlebach, an Austrian immigrant who fled Nazi Vienna in 1938 with his family to Brooklyn and then to the Upper West Side, where his father led a small Orthodox congregation and where Talmudic scholarship led to an improbable path as a spiritual folk troubadour. He ultimately became the dominant Jewish songwriter of his time

No, this path wasn’t created over night, as Wise’s Soul book lays out in exhaustive, if never totally convincing, detail. Fusing checklist biographical moments with Borscht Belt yuks (when asked if he knows who Peter, Paul and Mary are, he deadpans, “I don’t know so much the New Testament”) and righteous sanctimony, the open-minded but repressed Rabbi Carlebach strikes up an unorthodox relationship with a pre-fame Nina Simone (an excellent Amber Iman, in gorgeous, appropriate voice and even more gorgeous gowns courtesy of costumer Maggie Morgan). He’s already charting new ground, offending his Orthodox upbringing by learning the guitar and using popular musical stylings to reach out his own community as well as the culture beyond it. Due to both his music and his cavorting with African-Americans, Carlebach is exiled from his own synagogue and discovered in Washington Square Park by a music producer, Milt (Michael Paternostro), who encourages the unrefined singer to record a demo of his liturgically-based songs.

Wise’s style, both directorially and structurally, is didactic, and this by-the book approach cuts down on the artistry when he should trust the emotional undercurrents to carry Soul the most. For example, the initial bonding scene between Carlebach and Simone makes the implicit all too explicit. They discuss how they both come from a history of peoples that have been oppressed. There is much to be said about how music fuses the pain and the joy of such people and creates an outlet through which groups can unite and bond – this is the stuff of great works of art – but it’s all laid out too thick here. So, too, is the inevitable-seeming second-act opposition to Carlebach’s liberal mentality, which finds him touring the globe as a performer and finding a base in San Francisco’s lovey-dovey Haight-Ashbury district. This is represented primarily by the two-dimensional Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), Shlomo’s erstwhile mentor who opposes his pupil descent into rock and roll depravity and by Carlebach’s (what else?) disapproving mother, played by Jacqueline Antaramian. Furthermore, Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s choreography feels redundant and unengaging.

Anderson delivers a star performance, linking Carlebach’s sensitivity, naivete and good intentions, and dexterously handling the musical numbers, to which David Schechter has added new lyrics to some of Carlebach’s existing songs. Both his turn and Wise’s direction received Drama Desk nominations for last year’s Off-Broadway run, and yet Wise’s textbook storytelling style denudes Soul of its complexity. The full weight of Carlebach’s titular journey – which ends in this version in 1972, although the performer lived until 1994 – is never absorbed (nor are late-life developments, including a sexual harassment allegation, even acknowledged), and his sacrifices are never made clear. At best, these are marginally conveyed through the performance of the miraculous Zarah Mahler as Ruth, one of Carlebach’s most ardent followers. Hers is a performance that effortlessly explains the troubled yearning that spawned the folk and free-love scenes, and just why all the answers these young people that they had found really didn’t solve anything. (Paternostro and Ryan Strand, as Carlebach’s younger brother, should be remembered for their solid work here as well.)

If Carlebach himself is an odd fit, so, too, is Wise’s staging at Circle in the Square, where productions are meant to be performed in the round rather than the standard proscenium route taken by Soul. As a result, audience members get only a limited view of the action. The same can be said of Carlebach’s life itself. Though lovingly played by a cast led by the sensational Anderson, this doctor’s visit barely adds up to a satisfying consult.

Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi
Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway. www.souldoctorbroadway.com

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