In 'Soul Doctor,' unusual rock-star rabbi croons
NEW YORK — Sure, the sexual revolution was a culture shock for much of American society when it arrived in the 1960s. But imagine the conflict it posed for a rabbi who was eager to embrace it but had never so much as shaken hands with a woman because of strict social constraints steeped in 3,000 years of religious tradition.
The new Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” examines the life and times — and music — of Shlomo Carlebach in a unique, if plodding, study of a charismatic holy man who finds himself stuck between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
Carlebach, widely considered to be the modern era’s father of Jewish popular music, makes for a fascinating biographical subject, even if the re-orchestrations of his staid, folksy compositions aren’t quite lively or diverse enough to fill a two-hour, 30-minute musical. The unusual score is lifted somewhat by a couple of pleasing gospel numbers and engaging performances by Eric Anderson in the title role and Amber Iman as Nina Simone, one of Carlebach’s biggest influences.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo’s family fled Vienna to escape the Nazis when he was a boy. He came of age in New York and eventually moved to San Francisco, where he established the House of Love and Prayer and his own progressive style as a religious leader.
In eschewing certain aspects of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, particularly with regard to the intermingling of men and women, he made his message more accessible to the flower child generation but also drew significant backlash from conservative circles.
And he did it all with a smile and guitar slung over his shoulder.
Carlebach, who performed with stars like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead, used song and celebrity to spread the Torah to a wider, younger audience.
In “Soul Doctor,” a colorful but largely tuneless tribute that opened Thursday at Circle in the Square Theatre, writer-director Daniel S. Wise focuses heavily on Carlebach’s association with the singer, pianist and civil rights activist Simone, who opens Shlomo’s ears to jazz and gospel and encourages him to push the envelope of religious conventions.
The first encounter between the “Rock Star Rabbi” and the “High Priestess of Soul” comes in a chance meeting at a New York jazz club with Simone sitting at the piano. It is one of the show’s most memorable and emotionally charged scenes, with the two forming a bond while singing and trading horror stories about the Holocaust and racism.
It’s hard to know how much of this portrait is pure embellishment, but it seems to contain large parts of both factual biography and historical fiction. Wise’s Carlebach is steadily saintly and heroic with only faint hints of character flaws or ambiguities.
In the lead role, Anderson (Broadway casts of “Kinky Boots” and “South Pacific”) displays a formidable presence — and beard — with a disarming mix of placid shyness and childlike bursts of kinetic energy. He also played Carlebach in last year’s production of “Soul Doctor” at off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, earning a Drama Desk Award nomination for best lead actor in musical.
Amber Iman makes her Broadway debut as Nina Simone, oozing with effervescence and consistently thrilling the audience with her sterling voice and glamorous costumes. She deepens her timbre and tweaks her articulation just enough to recall Simone’s distinctive style of speech, without stooping to parody.
Iman has terrific chemistry with her leading man and leaves the audience wanting to see more of her, in part because she makes only sporadic appearances in Wise’s book, which is devoted to covering the entire span of Carlebach’s life.
And what a span it is, beginning with his childhood in Vienna under the shadow of Nazi domination and progressing through the rocking ’50s in New York and the trippy ’60s and ’70s in San Francisco, before a triumphant return to Europe and a late-life pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The brief adventures of young Shlomo (played on a recent night by Teddy Walsh and in alternating performances by Ethan Khusidman) provide a welcome dose of vitality to a script that tends to drag in sections and is loaded with plenty of stodgy Jewish humor.
Early in his career, when asked by a record producer if he knew of Peter, Paul and Mary, Shlomo responds sheepishly, “I don’t know so much the New Testament.”
Absent in this production is Circle in the Square’s familiar theater-in-the-round configuration and the usual “thrust” stage surrounded on all sides by stadium seating.
Instead, the stage is pushed to one side of the theater, with a section of floor seats in its place. The problem is many of the seats along the rounded periphery don’t directly face the stage, forcing the people sitting in them to crane their necks just a bit.
“Soul Doctor” should please Carlebach devotees and, for the uninitiated, the details of his exceptional life will stir enough curiosity to send them to Google for more.
But despite the spectacular life journey of this socio-religious phenomenon, the use of his solemn hymns as the basis for musical theater is at best an ambitious, if godly, pursuit.