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.
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 (Davidâ€™s Red-Haired Death), lighting design by Jeff Croiter (Newsies) and sound design by John Shivers (2013 TonyÂ®-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-
“Either you die slowly or you find the strength to go crazy” – J.B. Hapgood, “Anyone Can Whistle”