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New York City Theater

"Soul Doctor"
Circle in the Square Theater

Is this all we can expect from the dog days of summer – a tuneful, exuberant but superficial musical bio of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known as “The Singing Rabbi”? Beginning and ending in Vienna, from which the Carlebach family fled to America before the Holocaust, “Soul Doctor” centers around Shlomo, now a famous recording artist, who returns to Austria to give a vocal-and-guitar concert, hoping that his music can heal the past, can fix the world with a song.

Indeed, opening sequences of Nazi cruelty and populace fear are promising. But the evening soon devolves into a hagiographic tribute. There’s a story, but little plot to push the action forward, nor much insight to help us feel for the characters. Incidents follow one another like those identical ducks in a carnival shooting gallery.

As Shlomo finds his distinctive voice and talent for making music, he breaks away from Judaism’s strictures, especially the forced separation of men and women. When he meets Nina Simone (Amber Iman in a searing performance), not only do they encourage each other in their careers, their relationship grows in intimacy (up to a point), though doesn’t ignite.

Under Simone’s influence, Shlomo, believing that joyful music will so appeal to young people that they will return to the fold, peppers his Yiddish tunes with soul and gospel. Soon he’s making a recording (an amusing scene) and even starting a flower-children shul in San Francisco called The House of Love and Prayer. All true, no doubt.

As Shlomo, Eric Anderson gives a high-flying performance of sweetness and sincerity. Starting most numbers quietly, he builds until he practically levitates at the finish. It’s an arc the show might have followed.

As Shlomo’s father, mother and brother, Jamie Jackson, Jacqueline Antaramian and Ryan Strand capture the dilemma of refuges midway between old and new. Ron Orbach looms large in several roles and a special nod to two talented youngsters, Ethan Khusidman and Teddy Walsh.

Shlomo Carlebach’s actual music is stirring but repetitive, as is Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s clichéd choreography. David Schechter’s lyrics are serviceable, while Daniel S. Wise’s direction is as earnest as his libretto. None of that bothered the friendly audience, which cheerfully clapped along. Abi gezunt.

--David A. Rosenberg
Aug. 22, 2013

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