"Soul Doctor," a new musical now playing on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, tells the true-life tale of how a young Austrian Jew came to America, embraced the popular sounds of the ’50s and ’60s, and birthed a new style of religious music that transformed modern Jewish worship. Dubbed the "rock star rabbi," the young man’s name was Shlomo Carlebach and "Soul Doctor" shows that he had quite an incredible rise to fame.
The story begins as Hitler is gaining power in Europe in the ’30s, when young Shlomo moves with his parents and brother from Vienna to New York City. Although prior to leaving Vienna Shlomo discovers a love of music that he wants to share with others, he puts that dream away and follows his rabbi father’s firm request to study the Torah and keep the faith of his people -- nearly decimated by the Holocaust -- alive.
Cut to several years later. All grown up, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s passion for song is rekindled when he meets aspiring songstress Nina Simone, as she plays late one night at a jazz club. In the scene between them, one of the highlights of the musical, Simone helps the young rabbi find his musical voice. The friendship between these two very different musicians remains a touchstone throughout "Soul Doctor."
Once Shlomo has gained the courage to begin writing and sharing his songs, it doesn’t take long before a music producer snaps him up and finds a way to capture his unique musical magic on record. In no time, Shlomo is a celebrity in the Jewish community, even playing "kosher" concerts (where men and women sit separately).
Though a chance music lesson from a street singer shows us how Shlomo got his first guitar and learned his first chords, the show disappointingly never delves very deeply into his songwriting process. "Soul Doctor" certainly does an excellent job demonstrating that his natural charisma as a performer helped make Shlomo’s songs so special.
Nonetheless, the fact that his compositions had such an enormous influence on modern Jewish religious music makes his gift as a songwriter notable and worthy of a bit more exploration.
While "Soul Doctor" shows Shlomo is initially celebrated by the Jewish community, the singing rabbi faces the ultimate dilemma when he feels called to take his musical outreach to disaffected youth, from troubled addicts in Greenwich Village to seeker-hippies in San Francisco. He finds that embracing non-Orthodox people forces him to compromise some of his Jewish traditions, alienating him from his father and making him struggle with his own conscience. "Soul Doctor" is at its most compelling when dealing with this aspect of Shlomo’s personal development as both an artist and a rabbi.
With assured direction and a book by Daniel S. Wise, "Soul Doctor" is a polished production with a well-developed narrative and fully fleshed out, sympathetic characters. The narrative is so well-structured, in fact, that one imagines a fair bit of artistic license might have been taken in detailing Shlomo’s journey from reserved rabbi to free love icon (but then that’s expected in any ’based on a true story’ stage show).
At just over two and a half hours, "Soul Doctor" is a bit too long, trying to work in more details than necessary to tell its hero’s story. Some of the show’s humor is cliched, but plenty of it is genuinely chuckle-worthy. Similarly, a few moments intended to be tear-jerking don’t quite have that effect, but there are many scenes of true poignancy
Several of Carlebach’s own songs are integrated into "Soul Doctor," often inspiring joyful clapping along from the audience. Other songs feature Carlebach’s melodies with the addition of new lyrics by David Schechter. Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s angular choreography is interesting, but appears too modern for a musical that otherwise has a more traditional feel to it.
The producers of "Soul Doctor" were blessed indeed to have found the phenomenal Eric Anderson to play Carlebach. If, like me, you came into the show not knowing anything about this popular figure, Anderson makes it very easy to understand how he charmed and inspired generations with his music and his personality. Anderson’s Shlomo is a good-natured, thoughtful, and unassuming man who lights up with joy and instantly spreads it to everyone around him the instant he begins to sing.
Anderson is surrounded by a strong cast that includes Ryan Strand as Schlomo’s endearing younger brother, Jamie Jackson as his stern but loving father, and Ron Orbach as Shlomo’s disapproving teacher Reb Pinchas. As Nina Simone, the spectacular Amber Iman makes you wish that the creators of this show would write a companion musical just for her -- a "Soul Sister" to Shlomo’s "Soul Doctor."