New York City Theater
Circle in the Square, Broadway
A brand new rock musical has arrived on Broadway. Well, perhaps not so new, since “Soul Doctor” follows the fortunes of a rabbi-turned-jazz musician. Shades of Al Jolson’s landmark film of the ‘20s--“The Jazz Singer”!
But “Soul Doctor” is actually based on a true story, focusing on one Shlomo Carlebach (who wrote music and additional lyrics for this show).
This is a potentially moving tale, even if it was preceded by that famous film. Carlebach and his family—Orthodox Jews--escape Hitler, leaving Vienna in the late ‘30s. His father, once the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, sets up shop in Brooklyn, raising his two sons to carry on the family business.
But Shlomo, early on, hears music in his head, as he struggles with his inner conflict between his strict Jewish faith and a contemporary beat. He is strongly influenced by the black singer Nina Simone, whom he meets by chance in a bar.
The tale is strong, with adversaries lined up on either side—his father, brother, and former Yeshiva teacher pitted against the world of modern music. Shlomo himself will never abandon his faith, though it takes a different turn. He goes on to become a successful recording and performing artist, even as he maintains his own hippie congregation through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In this particular Circle in the Square production (directed by Daniel S. Wise and choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer), the music is indeed authentic and mesmerizing (though often repetitious). And the story moves ahead with brio, backed up by a hard-working chorus. Unfortunately, at its core is a pleasant but bland Shlomo (played by Eric Anderson). Where is the charisma necessary to draw in so many followers to his congregation?
But his scene with Nina Simone (portrayed by the excellent Amber Iman) is deeply moving. At last Shlomo comes vividly to life, and no little thanks is due to Iman, who in fact gives heart, soul, and substance to the show. Other performers are fine—among them Ethan Khusidman and Teddy Walsh (as the young Shlomo and his brother), plus Jamie Jackson and Jacqueline Antaramian (Shlomo’s parents) and Ron Orbach (his ornery teacher).
“Soul Doctor” inevitably recalls, not only “The Jazz Singer,” but “Godspell” and “My Name is Asher Lev.” But even Shakespeare borrowed heavily from earlier sources, and repetition can be forgiven if the story gets a fresh slant. “Soul Doctor” may have its failings, but the interweaving of modern music with the Jewish faith is indeed intriguing.
August 17, 2013