The life — part of it, anyway — of Jewish folk singer and spiritual guru Shlomo Carlebach comes to the stage of Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre in Soul Doctor, an audience-rousing new bio-musical by Daniel S. Wise and David Schechter. But unison-clapping does not a good musical make. Like last season's Aimee Semple McPherson bio-show, Scandalous, (and similarly, Motown the Musical), Soul Doctor is an overlong exercise in purifying the legacy of a controversial figure, with an excellent central performance by leading actor Eric Anderson.
Anderson's Shlomo is the male equivalent of Carolee Carmello's Aimee, a well-thought-out portrayal that burrows deep into a character given exceedingly little with which to work. On the page, Shlomo has two emotions: in the first act, fear; in the second, general good humor. But Anderson, who has played the role in multiple early productions and received a 2013 Drama Desk Award nomination for last summer's developmental staging at New York Theatre Workshop, infuses him with a range of very human feelings, making it seem like the Shlomo before us is the real deal.
And yet, it's not. The real Shlomo Carlebach, considered by many to be the father of popular Jewish music, died of a heart attack on an airplane in 1994. He left behind scores of devoted followers and thousands of melodies that changed the way Jewish liturgical prayers could be sung. His life was rife with controversy; the Orthodox considered him a pariah for going against the traditional teachings, and a few years after his death allegations of sexual harassment were revealed in the Jewish-American feminist magazine Lilith.
Very little of this is explored in the production, which book writer Wise also directs. Wise opts instead for the safer and less-dramatically-satisfying tract of charting Carlebach's life from his childhood (during which he and his family fled the Nazis and moved to America) to his gradual rise in popularity once he discovers music from an unknown jazz singer named Nina Simone (Amber Iman, fabulous in a thankless role). The second act takes us into the 1960s and '70s, when Shlomo becomes the internationally renowned spiritual guru, with a cult-like sect of followers, whom some remember today.
As Shlomo and Nina, Anderson and Iman give off the only sparks of genuine human emotion. The always-reliable Ron Orbach, as one of Shlomo's old teachers who vehemently disagrees with his student's path, is stuck playing the Orthodox, payos-twirling version of a Snidely Whiplash-like villain, while Jacqueline Antaramian, Jamie Jackson, and Ryan Strand look put-upon as Shlomo's family members. Zarah Mahler, as Shlomo's follower and would-be girlfriend Ruth, scores big with the late-in-the-second-act ballad "I Was a Sparrow," but her character doesn't deserve what amounts to the eleven o'clock number.
Carlebach's beautiful, often jaunty melodies make up the score, but new lyrics by Schechter are clunky and unmemorable. With exchanges like "You heard of Peter, Paul, and Mary?" / "I don't know much about the New Testament," Wise's book is composed of cheap laughs that go down easy, minus the rim shots that would accompany Borscht Belt comedians at resorts like Kutscher's or the Nevele. His slow-moving direction becomes soporific in the second act and Benoit-Swan Pouffer's balletic choreographer is way too busy. Neil Patel's simple set gives off the feel of a synagogue bimah, while Jeff Croiter's hippy-dippy lighting evokes memories of Hair.
Perhaps most distressing — given the fact that most of the creative team and producing staff is Jewish — is the mishandling of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawls, worn by the actors. At one point, a character pulls the shawl off Shlomo, letting the ritual strings (tzitzit) touch the ground. He then subsequently drags it off stage, (accidentally) stepping on them along the way (a big no-no in the Jewish faith that is majorly disrespectful).
Oddly enough, this seemed right in tune with the production, which tries and tries to show the story of a great man, but steps on every opportunity to tell us why this "Rock Star Rabbi" is a figure worth remembering.
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