Review: A WICKED SOUL makes for a killer evening

World premiere of folk opera enchants at Geffen Playhouse

By: Jul. 03, 2022
Review: A WICKED SOUL makes for a killer evening

In 1994, the seemingly random murder of a rabbi's wife upended the close-knit suburban community of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Several years later, when the rabbi Fred Neulander was tried and ultimately convicted of hiring two hitmen to commit the crime, the media coverage and trial shone a glaring and clearly undesired spotlight on this otherwise nondescript region of South Jersey. Playwright/composer Matt Schatz is peeling the onion of this notorious case yet again through his new musical A WICKED SOUL IN CHERRY HILL and, judging by local reaction at least, some folks are none too thrilled to have this blot on their city dredged up anew. The wounds are still too raw.

As understandable as their unease might be, one would hope detractors would dig a little deeper and actually see the work before rushing to judgment. Schatz's play, in its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse, is using storytelling and the act of coming together to work toward healing. Furthermore, director Mike Donahue's production on the Geffen's Cates stage is so intelligent, well-crafted and downright fun (sorry, folks; cold-blooded murders aren't supposed to be the stuff of entertainment, but then again... SWEENEY TODD) that A WICKED SOUL seems destined to have a future beyond Westwood. Not sure this play will ever get booked into, say, the Cherry Hill Performing Art Center, but stranger things could happen. And these events are certainly strange.

A WICKED SOUL is presented as a kind of ritual observance whereby the members of the region's Jewish Community Center assemble on November 1 - the anniversary of the murder - "to recount and recall." The delicate strains of Xenia Deviatkina-Loh's violin gets us started (A la FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) and off we go! Through entirely sung-through dialog, we learn about the town, its denizens and character, about a junior rabbi (played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) whose popularity never came close to that of hip Rabbi Fred; of Rabbi Fred's wife (Jill Sobule), who opened up a successful kosher cake company, and about Len (Mongiardo-Cooper again) the blowhard reluctant hitman who claimed to have been a former CIA agent. We meet the Rabbi's mistress (Zehra Fazal), a journalist (Rivkah Reyes) who helped crack the case, and several others.

And, of course, we meet the Rabbi himself. As embodied by Danny Rothman, he's youthful, charming, slightly tweedy and possessed of an easy smile. The man who just wants to be called Fred is a low-key revolutionary from Queens looking to shake things up. The kids love him and the middle-aged ladies of his congregation, M'Kor Shalom, positively melt over his every step (played out in the ribald number "Friday Night.")

Schatz is a proud Jew and South Jersey native who has personal connections to the community he is dissecting. He's telling the story entirely through song, folk-opera style. Characters move the story forward and provide narration about other characters or speak in the third person more often than they sing about themselves. The playwright spins his tale with a respect that does not come close to reverence. He's certainly not above using humor to shade a scene or provoke a reaction. In "Tell it Again," for example, a group of AA members urge Len to recount his crazy stories ("I possess a Mensa membership. I tried to kill Castro twice.") Fortunately for everyone trying to crack the case, Len likes to talk.

In contrast to the humor of "Friday Night" or "Tell it Again," you've got the sweetly sorrowful "Yes," the backstory of Rabbi Fred's mistress, the Lady on the Radio, rendered with longing and loveliness by Fazal. Or "The Song of a Son," that finds Rabbi Fred's conflicted son (played by Jahbril Cook) testifying against his father in the trial over his mother's murder. Through these richly narrative songs, Schatz proves himself a compelling storyteller. The fact that he is working with a tale so close to his heart is a bonus.

A WICKED SOUL (The title is how Fred characterizes his wife to the hitman in establishing what needs to be done) is a play about the workings of community. As such, it does not contain a hero or central protagonist. The actors are, to a person, excellent both in their vocal abilities and in their character-swapping versatility. Especially strong are Reyes, playing the Rabbi's daughter and a small-paper journalist looking to help break the story and Sobule who is outstanding as the rabbi's pragmatic wife and the congregation's cantor. Music director/arranger and orchestrator Scott Anthony leads a crackerjack on-stage five-person band.

Director Donahue will be back at the Geffen in September to helm the much-anticipated West Coast premiere of Matthew Lopez's THE INHERITENCE (PART 1 & PART 2). But for now, L.A. audiences should drink in the fruits of his labor on A WICKED SOUL. Community healing should always be this engaging.

A WICKED SOUL IN CHERRY HILL plays through July 24 at The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit

Photo of (L-R) Rivkah Reyes and Zehra Fazal by Jeff Lorch

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