GUEST REVIEW: “Soul Doctor” at the Circle in the Square Theater

There is a scene in the first act of “Soul Doctor,” one that features the characters of Nina Simone and Rabbi Shlomo, a piano, a chair, and a tip jar.   She smokes and plays, he sits and frets, and through the scene they invariably sew their souls together in conversations of race, heartache and loss, and the healing and spiritual power of music.  The scene, lovingly performed by Eric Anderson as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Amber Iman as Nina Simone, is at the heart of “Soul Doctor,” which opens on Broadway tonight at the Circle in the Square Theater.   As wonderful as this scene is, unfortunately the soul of this musical has been buried in Rabbi Shlomo’s storied rise to Jewish music stardom; the show suffers, as with many biographical plays, the need to incorporate one person’s timeline in flashbacks, a series of “highlight reel” scenes, and offers many unanswered questions while never taking the time to explore all the varied themes it introduces.

I attended Wednesday’s matinee with an open…well, an admittedly empty mind.  I didn’t know the true history of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who traveled with family as a boy to escape pre-Nazi Vienna only to become a “Rock Star Rabbi” in 1960s America.  He broke with Traditional Jewish norms and took European Hebrew music into modern rock and roll and folk riffs, updating it, writing new melodies to ancient words, and connecting it to the youth of the day.  He even held his own version of a Synagogue on the corner of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  The audience sitting with me was an older crowd and more knowledgeable about the subject matter: the mere mention of “Rabbi Schneerson” caused a low murmur to ripple across them.  So, I felt a bit in the dark in my half-Jewish/half-Catholic, mostly-ignorant state.

 In “Soul Doctor,” the story of Reb Shlomo unfolds on stage like the pages of a well-worn and comfortably familiar book – the staging is simple, the set does not get in its own way to flow from scene to scene, and the story is straightforward.  There are few shocks or twists and turns to his story, although from an insider’s perspective I may be dismissing this as age-old “stuff my Mother’s generation went through” angst.  Humor (both Jewish and universally funny guffaw-inducing moments) keep the script fun and not too heavy-handed.   The show itself strives to tell the story of his journey to forgive Vienna and his enemies through song (all music is by Carlebach, with translated lyrics by Carlebach and additional narrative lyrics by David Schechter).  The show questions “how can you change the world with a song?” and “what good are the words if you forget the melody?”…basically, what good are you as a religious leader in knowing all the words written in the Torah if you are not instigating action and creating life-changing connections with your congregation?  After these questions were posed, I waited to be shown how Shlomo answered them during the times when he wasn’t singing; yet, only in one scene did we get a glimpse how the Rabbi taught his form of Judaism to his congregation without the use of a guitar.

Eric Anderson sings and performs Shlomo to great effect, with high energy and fervor at times, and at most times with a true inner peace and understandable love.
Amber Iman as Nina is fierce, funny, vocally spectacular, and showed her own Rabbinically spiritual side in music effortlessly.  The rest of the cast was also very wonderful, although at times some non-traditional gender and race casting within the multiple-character storytelling knocked me out of the mostly historically accurate world.  The music itself was well arranged and at times beautiful and stirring; however, Carlebach’s music flowed from one melody to the next without much of a hook, and I felt certain scenes to be over-melodized rather than simply spoken.  This is not a show to walk out humming the hit theme song (and “I Put A Spell On You” from Nina Simone won’t count), although from the audience’s reaction there were many of the Rabbi’s hits featured.  The standing ovation at the end was more a clap-along than applause.  It did make me smirk from a musical point of view when Nina encouraged the “congregation-audience” of her Baptist church to clap on the 2’s and 4’s, only have the entire audience clapping on the 1’s and 3’s instead…some cultural rhythms take time to learn, I guess.  The show also allowed for some beautifully acted moments; Zarah Mahler as Ruth, Shlomo’s student saved from the shadow of Washington Square Park, has a gorgeous song, “I Was a Sparrow (Schifchie),” which offers Mahler a chance to take the Rabbi’s lyrics and tenderly carve her heart into them.

 But back to the scene between Nina and Shlomo – their story truly hooked me, how two different people on opposite sides of the race, gender, and religion spectrum could connect so lovely and with so much fervor.  I would almost say their scenes in the show are reason enough to see this on Broadway, and to allow the introduction of his life into one’s consciousness.  Shlomo’s ostracization by his family and religious overseers became emotionally second to the relationship he had with Nina on stage.  Indeed, after seeing this scene my heart ached for a two-person show featuring conversations and combinations of Nina Simone’s “African-American Classical” music (as she put it) and Reb Shlomo’s reinvented Hebrew music, rather than a glossary-glance biomusical that left some questions unanswered.  Since the show blossomed out of Carlebach’s own daughter’s one-woman show idea, I felt the addition of so many scenes and characters diluted the messages inherent in his message and glimpses of his soul we were able to see were left largely untouched.

I’m not sure if I’m the target audience of this musical, although the emotional questions it offers are universal in nature – human pain, striving to deal with one’s feelings of hopelessness, and the attempts to heal our hearts through music and forgiveness are the same no matter where you hail from or what your religious beliefs are.  Seeing it caused me to hit Wikipedia and YouTube the Rabbi himself, and although my parents didn’t remember hearing about him during their time in 1960s San Francisco, I do believe his story is important to learn about, as his teachings certainly changed a specific generation’s world through story and song.   I only wish the book by Daniel S. Wise delved deeper.
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Eric Anderson plays Shlomo, the role that garnered him a 2013 Drama Desk Award nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, for his performances Off-Broadway, and Amber Iman, making her Broadway debut, will play the role of Nina Simone.  They will be joined by a multi-cultural cast including Jacqueline Antaramian, Dianna Barger, Richard Cerato, Tara Chambers, Maria Conti, Alexandra Frohlinger, Afra Hines, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Jamie Jackson, Ethan Khusidman, Dillon Kondor, Zarah Mahler, Vasthy Mompoint, Ron Orbach, Ian Paget, Heather Parcells, Michael Paternostro, JC Schuster, Eric J. Stockton, Ryan Strand and Teddy Walsh.

The award-winning design team for Soul Doctor includes scenic design by Neil Patel ([title of show]), costume design by Maggie Morgan (David’s Red-Haired Death), lighting design by Jeff Croiter (Newsies) and sound design by John Shivers (2013 Tony®-winner for Kinky Boots) and David Patridge.  Orchestrations and additional arrangements are by Steve Margoshes, music supervision and arrangements are by Brian Koonin and music direction and arrangements are by Seth Farber.

This production is produced by Jeremy Chess, Jerome Levy, Robert Beckwitt, Edward Steinberg, Joel Kahn and Danny Boy Productions.

The new Broadway musical Soul Doctor, about the life and music of Shlomo Carlebach and his unlikely friendship with Nina Simone, begins performances on Wednesday, July 17 at Circle in the Square Theatre (1600 Broadway, entrance on 50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue), with an official opening set for Thursday, August 15.

All tickets are $135 and can be purchased through www.SoulDoctorBroadway.com, by calling (212) 239-6200, or at the Circle in the Square box office.  For groups of 10 or more, please visit www.groups.telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6262 or (800) 432-7780.
CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE THEATRE
(1633 Broadway, Entrance on 50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

     – Sierra Rein-
(646) 961-3942
sirein@sierrarein.com
www.sierrarein.com
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“Either you die slowly or you find the strength to go crazy” – J.B. Hapgood, “Anyone Can Whistle”

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Review of “Porgy & Bess” on Broadway by Sierra Rein, Guest Reviewer

Review of “Porgy & Bess” on Broadway by Sierra Rein, Guest Reviewer

I almost pinched myself whilst sitting in the balcony of the Richard Rogers theater Friday night (August 3, 2012) – finally I would be able to see the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess,” featuring at least three amazing musical theater performers – Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, and David Alan Grier. I had never seen a production of it before, neither on stage nor on the screen. I had only heard clips, and of course have heard “Summertime” in both classical and cabaret styles over the years. But I never knew the show from top to bottom, the characters, the plot, and am not an expert on the score or the history of the show. I went in with innocent/virgin ears and eyes.

It was brilliant. Moving, gorgeous, amazing music, vocals to die for (in both the classical and the more modern musical theater sense). The running time was obviously cut down to reflect Broadway audience schedules, but I could have seen another 1/2 hour of material. I know there are purists who rail against the cuts, the edits, the character changes, how certain songs do not have the original orchestrations or vocal harmonies as the original. And I say that I understand this; however this Broadway version whets my appetite to want to see more, so in a way it’s a great introduction to the original show.

What I appreciated the most about this production was the care the director and actors took to make these people absolutely, 100% real and emotionally present. Not a moment was glossed over, not a down-dirty piece of information was missed. Drugs, rape, babies, love, death, poverty, obsession, hope, nature, racism, big city vs. country life – all were dealt with from the ground up, nothing ignored. I felt immense tension all through my body watching some scenes; others made me tear up and have a lump in my throat, they were so gorgeously done; still others were perfectly attuned to the comic side for relief.

This was one time of many that I had seen Norm Lewis perform on stage, and unsurprisingly his Porgy was amazing. He just radiated hope and love and care, a true hero you wanted to root for. He was in constant struggle with his physicality, his crippled state, and it was brilliant to see him consistently hold that physicality for the entire show. His “nothing” with a wry smile into “I Got Plenty O’Nothin” was pitch-perfect, you just instantly fall in love with him and want to follow his journey with your whole being.

His Porgy was the perfect antidote to Audra McDonald’s Bess. She burned with the physicality of a druggie, from her speech (a bit of a stutter), to her sensuality, to a leg tremble that appeared at intense moments of decision. I have never seen her perform on stage (I have only listened to her amazing voice on CD) and I was awestruck by her ability to make Bess a truly conflicted character, and I followed her struggle and the love she had for Porgy (and moments of hopelessness for that love to survive) until the end. Her stellar vocals aside, I would watch that woman on stage doing anything – she was specific, grounded, consistent, and mesmerizing.

Indeed, the entire cast floored me with the exact same strengths. I rose to give them a Standing O as soon as the curtain came up for bows. This music is not easy, and to perform it with full emotional power is not easy as well (and sometimes dangerous to the vocal chords). Not one person held back, and the other characters on stage GAVE of themselves in full. I loved the care that the director made to make their stories as vibrant and as fully human in scope and power as Porgy and Bess’ love affair. I was rooting for everyone, and interestingly enough I understood where the villains and antagonists of the story were coming from too – they were 3D villains and a part of the world of the play (as a**holes are in the real world), not stereotypes. Yes, this is an OPERA and has the breadth and scope of an operatic story, but everything was done with such specificity that the audience should be able to track the true emotions of everyone involved.

And David Alan Grier…what can I say?! He played the scoundrel Sporting Life with stray cat pizazz, hitting the light and the dark sides of his character perfectly. It wasn’t too hard to imagine his character strutting down the streets of New York. I’m hoping someone in the future might write the sequel to “Porgy and Bess” (uh oh, do I hear a “blasphemy!”?) just so I can see how this scoundrel does his thing in New York. He invoked an evil Cab Calloway, and was pretty amazing.

I praise this production for introducing me to the world of “Porgy and Bess,” and look forward to seeing the original in one form soon. In the meantime, the souls of the story are being brilliantly portrayed on Broadway – it closes September 23rd, so go see it! My husband stated that it was the best musical he had ever seen (he’s a stickler for character motivation and storytelling, and he was just as thrilled as I).

About the Reviewer:

SIERRA REIN
SAG-AFTRA • AEA

Sierra was last seen at Goodspeed Musicals in “City of Angels” as Angel City 4 Alto and Donna/Oolie understudy. She also has performed with members of the New York City Opera in a reading of the new opera “Strange Fruit” and had her New York City stage debut with Theater Ten Ten’s “Ruddigore.”

Her vocal group, Marquee Five (www.marqueefive.com) won a MAC Award for Vocal Duo/Group and released their debut CD, “8-Track Throwback,” in 2011. She yearly sings with the Definitely Dickens Holiday Carolers. She has also performed in numerous composer showcases in New York and has become a regular at The Salon open mic. She has regularly appeared at open mics, for composer showcases, and has shot many videos with her puppet, Kay “ThePal” Pringle. Along with her husband, Pete, they perform online puppetry via www.ThePal.us (his puppet’s name is Jay ThePal).

Favorite credits: Chiffon in “Little Shop of Horrors” (Utah Shakespearean Festival), Sister Sophia in “Sound of Music” and Nimue in “Camelot” (Fullerton CLO), Nadia in Ovation-winning “bare” (Hudson Theater), Second Soprano in “Master Class” (Odyssey Theater), roles in “The Pajama Game” and “The Boys from Syracuse” (Reprise!), and Ellen Beach Yaw in cult favorite “A Mulholland Christmas Carol” (Theater of N.O.T.E.). In 2007, she premiered “Ridin’ High,” her debut cabaret show (directed by Calvin Remsberg). Read a more detailed bio here.

www.sierrarein.com
sirein@sierrarein.com

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