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BWW Reviews: SOUL DOCTOR's Shortened Length is a Mitzvah

If only for the fact that there's less of it, the new Off-Broadway production of Soul Doctor, the musical inspired by the early career of Jewish-American recording artist Shlomo Carlebach, the "Rockstar Rabbi," is an improvement over the Broadway production that played Circle In The Square for two months last year.

Josh Nelson and Company (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The nearly three hour long two-act has been streamlined into an intermissionless 100 minutes, but Daniel S. Wise's book is still a standard point-by-point telling of how the son of an Orthodox rabbi, expected to carry on with the family business, breaks 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.

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.

The Broadway production greatly benefitted from Eric Anderson's charismatic performance in the title role; making audiences believe that this refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna could grow up to be the spiritual leader of a hippie congregation in San Francisco. Now the role is played by Josh Nelson, who has a pleasant folk voice but whose continual puppy-dog sweetness has no spark.

Of course, he has to make due with a book dotted with perfunctory earnestness and borscht belt style yuks (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.").

Josh Nelson and Dan'yelle Williamson (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Director Mindy Cooper tries to get the audience involved by having actors parade through the aisle during songs, but Soul Doctor is at its most engaging during its one very well written scene.

The setting is 2am in a smoky Manhattan piano bar, sometime in 1957. Nina Simone (played with cool, gritty strength by Dan'yelle Williamson), 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. 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."

"Why's that?"

"Ducking bullets!"

If more of Soul Doctor was like that warm, darkly humorous and hesitantly emotional scene, the musical would be far more interesting.

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