Review - SOUL DOCTOR In Need Of A Show Doctor
Midway through the first act of Soul Doctor, the musical inspired by the early career of Jewish-American recording artist Shlomo Carlebach - described in advertisements as the "Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi" - there is a lovely and intimate scene between the title character, still discovering himself as a musician, and another young star-to-be.The setting is 2am in a smoky Manhattan piano bar, sometime in 1957. Nina Simone, a classically trained pianist whose skin color bars her from her dream of playing Carnegie Hall, noodles a bit of "I Put A Spell On You" and "Feelin' Good" for tips from the few remaining customers. The timid Shlomo, five hours late for hearing a set by his friend's jazz band, shouldn't even be in a jazz club by Orthodox law and he really shouldn't be striking up a conversation with a woman who isn't his own wife, but he's drawn to the elegant style of this dignified woman who is indeed putting a spell on him.
But when he responds to the story of her thwarted career with a sympathetic, "I really understand how you feel," Simone is deeply offended, informing this white stranger that her grandmother was born into slavery and she herself grew up in a segregated North Carolina where, as an 11-year-old, she saw her family's church get burned to the ground by arsonists. But Shlomo insists that he shares her pain and tells of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Vienna, where he saw his family's temple burn to the ground, mobs harass his mother and relatives crammed into trains heading for concentration camps.
When he softly starts singing the Hebrew lyric Ki va moed ("The time has come") and she underscores it with a gospel riff, their bonding over mutual hardship is complete.
"Look at you. Swayin' like you was a real black Jazz musician."
"Jews are always swaying."
If more of Soul Doctor was like that warm, darkly humorous and hesitantly emotional scene, the musical would be far more interesting than the awkward and clichéd point-by-point biography occupying Circle In The Square after a stint Off-Broadway and a regional tour.
Amber Iman glitters with glamour and ferocity as civil rights activist Simone, but unfortunately her character is a peripheral one, popping in and out of the story without much purpose. Instead, bookwriter/director Daniel S. Wise presents a standard tale of the son of an Orthodox rabbi, expected to carry on with the family business, breaking away from the solemn and austere traditions of his religion by donning a folk guitar and composing Hebrew songs meant to uplift postwar Jewish youth with a contemporary, humanist style.After a successful first recording session ends the first act, the second half takes us to San Francisco, where Jewish hippies groove to his sound at a storefront temple on Haight Street, and finally to a concert appearance in Vienna, where the rabbi tries to bring love to the city that was so full of hate in his childhood.
The score is made up of Carlebach's music, orchestrated for "The Holy Beggar Band" by Steve Margoshes, with David Schechter providing new lyrics pertaining to the plot. Eric Anderson has been playing the title role throughout the musical's pre-Broadway engagements and his captivating portrayal of a man exuding humble charisma and a sincere desire to inspire the spirits of his fellow men lifts the evening into an experience far more enjoyable than the sum of its parts. The heart of Soul Doctor is joyously alive when he sings Carlebach's melodies.
There are plenty of borscht belt style yuks on hand (When a record producer asks Shlomo if he's ever heard of Peter, Paul and Mary, the young rabbi replies, "I don't know so much the New Testament.") but the second act wanders aimlessly toward the finale. The big 11 o'clock number is nicely belted by Zarah Maher, but she plays a minor character of little interest by that point.
The energetic and appealing ensemble is certainly game, but Wise's staging and Benoit-Swan Pouffer's choreography, while competent, lack variety and imagination.
Soul Doctor may have a decent share of enjoyable moments, and sometimes even moving ones. But a housecall from a show doctor is definitely in order.