Rabbis don’t usually take center stage in Broadwaymusicals. But nothing could be more natural in Soul Doctor, a new production celebrating the real onstage and offstage life of Shlomo Carlebach, aka the 1960s’ “rock star rabbi.” Carlebach, who sought to bring spirituality to the masses, became an international success by merging Jewish tradition with American popular music. (His recordings are for sale in Circle in the Square’s lobby.)
The concept at this bio-musical’s sentimental core is tried and true on the boulevard: A tenderhearted good guy bucks the naysayers because he’s gotta dance and gotta sing. With Eric Anderson booming the troubadour’s original gospel- and soul-inflected songs in the title role, the energy levels (and mic volumes) go high and loud. The show definitely fares best when it uses Carlebach’s jumping tunes to illustrate his journey of faith and cultural confluences.
Unfortunately, the dramatic sections falter, and Shlomo never reveals many other character dimensions. Part of the problem lies in the sprawling narrative tackled by Soul Doctor‘s creators (book and direction by Daniel S. Wise and lyrics by David Schechter), which only allows for semaphored treatment of their subject. The show starts with the Carlebach family’s traumatic departure from wartime Vienna, where a patrolling Nazi violently forbids young Shlomo from singing in the street. But it devotes most of the two hours and 35 minutes to his second escape, this time from the strictures of his deeply religious family, now New York immigrants, in search of other freedoms. With timely encouragements from his unlikely lifelong friend Nina Simone (Amber Iman), the lost-but-devout young rabbi inevitably finds his true voice, world fame, and a measure of family acceptance, inspired by the stirring forms he encounters in jazz bars and storefront revival meetings.
Soul Doctor hinges around a politically careful scene in which Shlomo chances upon Simone playing for tips in a Manhattan dive and is moved by her stoic expressiveness and humanity. It’s the first time the young rabbi has spoken at length with an adult woman or a black person, and the strangers soon draw mutually respectful parallels between the historical oppressions of their peoples. (It’s the early 1960s, with civil rights marches looming.) Once this friends-forever bond has been established, however, Soul Doctor doesn’t investigate their friendship, the suggested racial parallels, or the era’s turbulence too deeply. As written here, Simone is only half-realized; Iman, a talented vocalist, plays her as unrelentingly demure, radiating grace and goodwill and not much else.
Though the dialogue can be painfully hackneyed and the second act runs too long, at least the story coheres. Several expository numbers could easily be cut with no dramatic loss, including a ballad by Shlomo’s forsaken groupie, Ruth (Zarah Mahler), a minor character who suddenly pours her heart out late in the evening.
Still, Soul Doctor is intended to inspire through song more than story, which is why it’s odd the narrative is so elongated. But if you like getting uplifted and clapping along, or think it’s wild fun when actors dressed as hippies bop in the aisles, this rocking rabbi and his followers might have a show for you.