Sure, the sexual revolution was a culture shock for much of American society when it arrived in the 1960s. But imagine the conflict it posed for a rabbi who was eager to embrace it but had never so much as shaken hands with a woman because of strict social constraints steeped in 3,000 years of religious tradition.
The new Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” examines the life and times — and music — of Shlomo Carlebach in a unique, if plodding, study of a charismatic holy man who finds himself stuck between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
Carlebach, widely considered to be the modern era’s father of Jewish popular music, makes for a fascinating biographical subject, even if the re-orchestrations of his staid, folksy compositions aren’t quite lively or diverse enough to fill a two-hour, 30-minute musical. The unusual score is lifted somewhat by a couple of pleasing gospel numbers and engaging performances by Eric Anderson in the title role and Amber Iman as Nina Simone, one of Carlebach’s biggest influences.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo’s family fled Vienna to escape the Nazis when he was a boy. He came of age in New York and eventually moved to San Francisco, where he established the House of Love and Prayer and his own progressive style as a religious leader.
In eschewing certain aspects of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, particularly with regard to the intermingling of men and women, he made his message more accessible to the flower child generation but also drew significant backlash from conservative circles.
And he did it all with a smile and guitar slung over his shoulder.
Carlebach, who performed with stars like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead, used song and celebrity to spread the Torah to a wider, younger audience.
In “Soul Doctor,” a colorful but largely tuneless tribute that opened Thursday at Circle in the Square Theatre, writer-director Daniel S. Wise focuses heavily on Carlebach’s association with the singer, pianist and civil rights activist Simone, who opens Shlomo’s ears to jazz and gospel and encourages him to push the envelope of religious conventions.
The first encounter between the “Rock Star Rabbi” and the “High Priestess of Soul” comes in a chance meeting at a New York jazz club with Simone sitting at the piano. It is one of show’s most memorable and emotionally charged scenes, with the two forming a bond while singing and trading horror stories about the Holocaust and racism.
It’s hard to know how much of this portrait is pure embellishment, but it seems to contain large parts of both factual biography and historical fiction. Wise’s Carlebach is steadily saintly and heroic with only faint hints of character flaws or ambiguities.
In the lead role, Anderson (Broadway casts of “Kinky Boots” and “South Pacific”) displays a formidable presence — and beard — with a disarming mix of placid shyness and childlike bursts of kinetic energy. He also played Carlebach in last year’s production of “Soul Doctor” at off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, earning a Drama Desk Award nomination for best lead actor in musical.
Thanks to a strong, textured voice, the burly Anderson makes the most of his vocal numbers despite the score’s mostly muted melodies, as well as the threat of being upstaged when sharing the spotlight with his lovely and talented co-star.
Amber Iman makes her Broadway debut as Nina Simone, oozing with effervescence and consistently thrilling the audience with her sterling voice and glamorous costumes. She deepens her timbre and tweaks her articulation just enough to recall Simone’s distinctive style of speech, without stooping to parody.
Iman has terrific chemistry with her leading man and leaves the audience wanting to see more of her, in part because she makes only sporadic appearances in Wise’s book, which is devoted to covering the entire span of Carlebach’s life.
And what a span it is, beginning with his childhood in Vienna under the shadow of Nazi domination and progressing through the rocking ‘50s in New York and the trippy ‘60 and ‘70s in San Francisco, before a triumphant return to Europe and a late-life pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The brief adventures of young Shlomo (played on a recent night by Teddy Walsh and in alternating performances by Ethan Khusidman) provide a welcome dose of vitality to a script that tends to drag in sections and is loaded with plenty of stodgy Jewish humor.
Early in his career, when asked by record producer if he knew of Peter, Paul and Mary, Shlomo responds sheepishly, “I don’t know so much the New Testament.”
Absent in this production is Circle in the Square’s familiar theater-in-the-round configuration and the usual “thrust” stage surrounded on all sides by stadium seating.
Instead, the stage is pushed to one side of the theater, with a section of floor seats in its place. The problem is many of the seats along the rounded periphery don’t directly face the stage, forcing the people sitting in them to crane their necks just a bit.
“Soul Doctor” should please Carlebach devotees and, for the uninitiated, the details of his exceptional life will stir enough curiosity to send them to Google for more.
But despite the spectacular life journey of this socio-religious phenomenon, the use of his solemn hymns as the basis for musical theater is at best an ambitious, if godly, pursuit.
Kvetching, kvelling, klapping.
There’s plenty of all of that going down in Broadway’s affectionate but superficial new singing biography, “Soul Doctor,” at Circle in the Square.
For bios — whether musical or not — to succeed fully and satisfy, they need to hit a couple of key targets. They’ve got to relate the subject’s life story, then put things in context and explain why it all matters.
Daniel S. Wise, who wrote the book and directs, and David Schechter, who handled some of the lyrics, manage the first compulsory duty — albeit in the most by-the-numbers linear fashion.
Over 2 1/2 hours we follow the late Shlomo Carlebach, who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna to New York as a boy with his family. He eventually rejected the Orthodox Judaism of his youth and became the so-called “Singing Rabbi” of the hippie-dippy ’60s. Carlebach’s pleasantly chipper songs (he wrote melodies and lyrics) celebrating faith thread throughout the show, with a few period songs popping up now and then.
But the show never moves beyond the basic chronology. Carlebach’s precise place and significance in history remain as fuzzy as his bearded face, even after spending hours with him. Yes, he cut some records and gave concerts, and, like everyone, his life was a bumpy journey. While it’s certainly not the aim of the creative team, Carlebach emerges as a novelty, a footnote in both the Jewish faith and folk-rock.
In spite of the material’s thinness, Eric Anderson brings a robust charm and naiveté as Carlebach, a man so turned on by making music that he acts like a human pogo stick. The Mandy Patinkin look-alike jumps like a kid on a playground when he strums his guitar and sings. Folks are invited to clap along.
Carlebach’s unlikely but enduring friendship with the proudly defiant and political performer Nina Simone makes for the most fascinating and dramatic subplot. Amber Iman plays the iconic singer more powerfully than persuasively — and there’s a big difference.
Other supporting characters are sketchy to the point of trivialization. That includes Carlebach’s stereotypically squabbling parents and especially Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), who toggles between being a poisonous villain and a corny walking punch line. That sort of clumsy, finesse-free storytelling does zip to put the rose in the cheeks of this “Soul Doctor.”
Much like its subject, the new Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” is terminally earnest and relentlessly sunny. Both also share a fish-out-of-water quality.
The show’s central character was a misfit, but he turned that quality into an asset: Shlomo Carlebach got famous when he went from studying the Torah to setting it to folky tunes in the 1960s.
Sadly, “Soul Doctor” is unlikely to be as popular as the man himself, who sang around the world until his death in 1994. While the show did well off-Broadway last summer, its hackneyed awkwardness will spell doom on the main stem.
To steer us through the singing rabbi’s journey of self-discovery — and probably make it more relatable to a gentile audience — book writer/director Daniel S. Wise uses an unlikely guide: Nina Simone.
As it turns out, the African-American jazz singer and the Jewish troubadour were friends and allies, outsiders who preached liberation. Simone (Amber Iman) turns up at regular intervals after her initial meeting with Carlebach (the upbeat Eric Anderson) in a Greenwich Village club where she’s playing piano.
This allows Iman to deliver convincing versions of Simone classics like “I Put a Spell on You” and “Sinnerman” as she checks in, Jiminy Cricket-like, on her protégé.
Carlebach was a first-generation immigrant, having fled Nazi Vienna with his family in 1938 and resettled in Brooklyn.
Young Shlomo and his brother, Eli Chaim, were groomed to succeed their scholarly father (Jamie Jackson), but strayed from that path, drawn as they were to the Hasidic movement’s exuberant brand of outreach. Shlomo, by then a rabbi, went one step further by picking up a guitar.
“I bet in synagogue they’ll really dig your music,” Simone tells Carlebach.
“Maybe dig a hole to bury it,” he says. “They have an old liturgical tradition . . . nothing new allowed.”
Carlebach is presented as a kind of holy fool, at once persistent and naive. Asked by his music producer, Milt (Michael Paternostro), if he’s heard of Peter, Paul and Mary, Carlebach replies, “I don’t know so much the New Testament.”
The show takes us up to 1972, concentrating on its star’s struggle against tradition, represented by the bigoted Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), and his awakening as a songwriter and spiritual leader.
This peaks with the creation of the House of Love and Prayer, a San Francisco flower-power congregation that here looks like a community-theater version of “Hair.”
Actually, that hackneyed vibe applies to the whole show, from Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s vague choreography to the groan-inducing dialogue. You often wish “Soul Doctor” had called a script doctor — especially when Shlomo’s warned that he’s “gonna do the horah/In Sodom and Gomorrah.”
To which even a gentile might sigh, “Oy vey.”
The Broadway season has barely begun to shake off its summer slumber, but I think I can guarantee that the months to come will bring no odder musical than “Soul Doctor,” the true-life tale of the folk-singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which opened on Thursday night at the Circle in the Square.
Played with self-effacing gentleness by Eric Anderson, Shlomo certainly makes an arresting figure. With a bushy beard and yarmulke always in place, he’s often found strumming a guitar and singing songs of peace, love and harmony to dreamy-eyed members of the flower-power generation.
Scenes from Shlomo’s earlier days feature a strikingly different chorus — leaping, dancing Yeshiva students with an unusually energetic approach to studying the Talmud. (The choreography, by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, is a little bit “Fiddler on the Roof,” a little bit “Hair.”) Then there’s the unlikely female lead: the great African-American performer Nina Simone, played by the suave, rich-voiced Amber Iman. In glamorous gowns and shining turbans, Nina swans in and out of the proceedings with some regularity, the friendship between her and Shlomo a touchstone in both their lives.
Also featured: a Nazi who shoots dead a dancing, singing Jew in the show’s early scenes.
Given this unusual blend of elements, it should be no surprise that “Soul Doctor” is a bizarre and at times bewildering musical. Carlebach’s life certainly makes for a fascinating story, spanning as it does the divergent worlds of Nazi-occupied Austria and the free-loving Haight-Ashbury of the 1960s. But “Soul Doctor,” which features Carlebach’s original music, with lyrics by David Schechter and a book by the show’s director, Daniel S. Wise, lays out Carlebach’s journey in mostly blunt, often hoary strokes.
As is often the case with bio-musicals, we learn the notable turns of the man’s life — or at least those that fit comfortably into an unabashedly celebratory show — without really exploring his depths. Beyond the vague aim of “lifting up his brokenhearted brothers one by one,” the workings of Shlomo’s heart remain opaque. He’s a rabbi with a cause, yes, but the cause never comes into clear focus.
The story begins in Vienna, where Shlomo is giving a concert, having returned to the city for the first time in decades. Those adoring hippies swirl around him, and Nina is on hand too. But the homecoming is interrupted by a “holy heckler.” This is Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), once Shlomo’s mentor, now his constant scourge, dismayed at how his prize student has turned into the “rock ’n’ roll rabbi.”
“A Jew must never forgive the crimes by these ‘cultured citizens of Vienna,’ ” Reb Pinchas angrily declaims.
Greeting this salvo with the verbal equivalent of a daisy dropped down a gun barrel, Shlomo replies, “My dear Reb Pinchas, if I had two hearts, I could use one to love and one to hate. But I only have one heart ... so I use it to love!” If I may borrow a Yiddishism Shlomo favors throughout “Soul Doctor”: gevalt.
How Shlomo moved from the stern rectitude demanded by his rabbinical training to embrace a more liberal philosophy is the story the musical laboriously unfolds. Back in 1938, young Shlomo (Teddy Walsh at the reviewed performance) and his brother Eli Chaim (Ethan Khusidman, ditto) are studying the Talmud with Reb Pinchas, as well as learning to smoothly deliver a good joke. When Shlomo asks how they can have some fun on Shabbos, Reb Pinchas shoots back: “Being a Jew is about pain and suffering! Joy is for the gentiles!” Sure enough, suffering arrives with a sudden knock on the door.
Also possessing a knack for dark humor is Shlomo’s mother, played by Jacqueline Antaramian. At the news there is a Nazi on her stoop she cracks, “What does he want, my recipe for kugel?” (Mr. Wise’s book is rather thick with shtick.) Soon the Carlebach family has established itself in Brooklyn, where Shlomo continues his studies and begins developing his composing gifts. But he itches at the strictures of tradition and yearns to bring straying youth into the Jewish fold. When Shlomo, now played by Mr. Anderson, and his brother (Ryan Strand) perform Shlomo’s songs at a college campus, they are greeted with derision.
“Wake up, man!” says one of the students. “There’s a revolution going on.”
“Hey, we’re making a revolution, too,” Shlomo responds. “Let’s join forces!”
“Well,” comes the answer, “first thing is, if you want to talk to the rock ’n’ roll generation, you’ve got to jazz it up.”
Enter Nina, whom Shlomo meets when he wanders disconsolately into a piano bar where she is playing. They bond over a love of music and their different peoples’ history of suffering, and Shlomo feels new inspiration to use his music to revitalize the prayer services. “You’ve changed my world tonight,” he says as he leaves. “Peace, sister!” Mr. Wise’s book is rich in both life-changing moments and clanking dialogue.
In short order Shlomo has been exiled from his synagogue after his new music outrages his elders and he is discovered singing during a service at Nina’s storefront church. He finds a new path when he meets a panhandler in Washington Square Park who dubs him a “soul doctor” and hands over his guitar. “You mamish changed my life,” Shlomo humbly says. (You can brush up your Yiddish at “Soul Doctor”: “mamish,” I learned, means “certainly” or “surely.”)
Yet more life change is just around the corner, when a record producer hears Shlomo serenading lost souls in the park. He hustles him into the studio and a star of modest dimensions is born.
Carlebach’s music, much of which was written to accompany traditional Jewish songs and prayers, is often beautiful and blends folk instrumentation with more recognizably traditional liturgical sounds. Mr. Anderson sings with a soft, captivating intensity, and the orchestrations often appealingly evoke Carlebach’s original recordings.
But Mr. Anderson’s performance is limited by the superficiality of Mr. Wise’s book. The actor imbues Shlomo with an affecting tenderness and sense of spiritual yearning. But for someone who apparently brought a new audience to Jewish music through his performances, as depicted here Shlomo seems an awfully passive figure, always on the wrong side of somebody’s anger or disappointment. It doesn’t help that Mr. Schechter’s lyrics drip with platitudinous poetry about spreading love and happiness:
Can you feel the wonder
When all the world rejoices
Singing and singing
Come on and sing along
Fill the world with love and prayer
Let the fixing finally start
Raise your voice up and prepare
To mend a broken heart
I wasn’t feeling so much wonder, having a low tolerance for all-together-now spiritual uplift. Those with affectionate memories of Carlebach’s music may find “Soul Doctor” inspiring and absorbing. I found it disappointing that this intriguing figure came across as a bland, bromide-spouting relic of the hippie era, albeit one tie-dyed in classic Jewish guilt. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring lives are the most difficult to dramatize.
Shlomo Carlebach may be the most charismatic guy you've never heard of. (If you have, bear with us.) The Brooklyn troubadour by way of Vienna tried to save the world by spreading God's word through what his Orthodox parents regarded as "devil's music."
His muse in this hippie-era quest was Nina Simone. Their unlikely friendship roughly fuses "Fiddler on the Roof" with "Hair" in "Soul Doctor," now raising a musical ruckus as directed by Daniel Wise -- with indulgence for his sprawling book.
In yeshivas like the one Shlomo's father establishes after the family fled the Nazis in 1938, it is forbidden for male and female students to mingle. Still, Shlomo ventures into the Village Gate, where men and women sit together shamelessly. A black woman with classical training plays jazz piano. She's the first woman unrelated to him to speak to Shlomo. It's 1963. No one's heard of Nina Simone yet, much less the "Rock Star Rabbi." Separately, but with mutual support, they rise to prominence and celebrity.
Eric Anderson as Shlomo and Amber Iman as Nina spiritedly lift "Soul Doctor" beyond Old and New Testament realms. Other riveting moments begin with the Jewish busker (Michael Paternostro) shot to death by a Nazi gendarme for singing in the street, and end with the first soul Shlomo saves, a Washington Square addict (a mellifluous Zarah Mahler) who sings her unrequited heart out.
Shlomo and Nina's first encounter is worth even the Broadway price of admission. Nina scolds him for saying he understands how she feels about racism. Shlomo tells of his people's annihilation. That leads to his first-ever hug with a woman -- mother excepted. A "scandalous" photo surfaces, exiling Shlomo to San Francisco, where he meets the Grateful Dead while establishing an unorthodox Orthodox Haight-Ashbury commune. His father (Jamie Jackson) disowns him. (Jacqueline Antaramian plays his sharp-tongue mother; Ryan Strand, his less-driven brother.)
Shlomo's return to Vienna at Simone's behest seals his pariah fate.
Neil Patel's Wailing Wall set moves us seamlessly to the jazz and hora beats of Seth Farber's orchestra and Benoit-Swan Pouffer's go-with-the-flow choreography; lyrics are by David Schechter and Carlebach, who died in 1994.
But what of Shlomo's personal life? There's no hint of his marriage. (His daughters carry on his legacy.) But we're most disappointed in the final tableaux -- phonier even than presidential candidates hugging after a primary slugfest. Zealots don't forgive perceived infidels. This is a biographical musical, not a Disney fantasy.
So a rabbi walks into a bar, where he finds a woman singing and playing piano. He's a white Jew whose family escaped Hitler's Europe; she's an African-American who grew up in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. They discover that they share a history of oppression, and a passion for music. Do you sense a controversial love story taking shape?
Soul Doctor (* * out of four), the mawkish new Broadway musical in which this scene unfolds, does aspire to be a love story, but not a romantic one. The characters just referenced are lifted from history: the jazz legend Nina Simone and the musician and religious teacher Schlomo Carlebach, who though less widely known developed his own following as a troubadour and spiritual guide in the 1960s.
Carlebach is the titular and central figure of the show, which features his songs, with lyrics adapted by David Schechter, and a libretto by Daniel S. Wise. The "rock & roll rabbi" is presented here as a sort of hippie-era Pied Piper, leading his minions with a message summed up in his early response to a dissenter: "I only have one heart, so I use it to love."
What's not to like about such a guy -- especially when the creators of Doctor, which opened Thursday at Circle in the Square, have played up his (platonic) friendship with Simone as a selling point? And when he's played, by leading man Eric Anderson, as such a cuddly ubermensch?
Alas, the musical's mix of hokey humor and preachy sentimentality is bound to test the most altruistic spirit. It opens in 1972, at a concert in Vienna, where Simone introduces our hero as "my soul brother-from-another-mother." Carlebach is heckled by another rabbi, Reb Pinchas, one of several characters who pops up intermittently to disapprove of his unorthodox methods -- and in this case, his decision to play in post-Holocaust Austria.
We then flash back to Vienna in 1938, where Pinchas is leading young Schlomo and his brother in Torah study. "Being a Jew is about pain and suffering!" he barks at them. "Joy is for Gentiles." The cliches pile on as we meet Schlomo's kind but wary father and abrasive mother and -- decades later, in New York -- Simone, portrayed by a suitably elegant but rather too brassy Amber Iman.
As she and Carlebach bond over a song, Simone remarks, "Look at you. Swayin' like you was a real black jazz musician." He responds, still singing, "Jews are always swaying." Simone: "Why's that?" Carlebach: "Ducking bullets!"
On it goes, as Carlebach lands a record deal and later heads West to lead a posse of flower children. By the time he reaches Jerusalem -- near the end of Doctor, which runs two and a half hours with an intermission -- anyone still paying attention will have accumulated enough material for a goodwill sermon and a Borscht Belt comedy routine.
Surely, there are more entertaining, less trying ways to promote universal harmony.
Lots of luck marketing “Soul Doctor” to a general audience. This worshipful musical biography of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the so-called “Rock Star Rabbi” credited with infusing Jewish music with the musical idioms of 1960s pop culture, has obvious appeal for its core audience of fans. But there’s nothing transcendent about Daniel S. Wise’s plodding book or Rabbi Carlebach’s “soulful” but dated music to lift the show out of its narrow niche and give it the universal appeal of a latter-day “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Eric Anderson, who played Shlomo Carlebach in a 2008 production at New York Theater Workshop, has the voice and presence, not to mention the physical stamina, to carry off the demanding role of a character who’s never offstage. Except, of course, in the early scenes of his childhood in Vienna, when a moppet actor (Ethan Khusidman and Teddy Walsh, alternating in the role) plays the obedient son of a wise Father (Jamie Jackson), a revered rabbi who astutely packs up his family and flees to America in 1938 as the Nazis are carrying out their pogroms.
Helmer Daniel S. Wise has staged the hair-raising events of the Rabbi’s early life in Vienna with efficiency if not much originality. Here is a stage full of Austrian Jews, clad in ethnic costumes (by Maggie Morgan), singing an ethnic song (“Good Shabbos”), dancing an ethnic dance and cowering before one jack-booted Nazi in black leather. Message delivered.
Once in New York, the eternal conflict between stern fathers and their rebellious sons causes a rift in the family. The elder Carlebach opens a conservative Yeshiva in Brooklyn with the expectation that his sons will follow in his traditional footsteps (“Keep the Fire Burning”). But young Shlomo, stirred by a charismatic Hasidic rabbi, embarks on a mission of his own making — bringing his music, with its message of love and peace, to the masses: ”He sang his song to / The lost and the lonely / Lifting up his broken-hearted / Brothers one by one.”
Unless you’re personally into it, there’s entirely too much of this ponderous religious pedantry to keep an audience alert. And while the cast seems to be in constant motion, the choreography is clunky and obvious.
According to historical legend, Shlomo Carlebach was inspired by the American musical idioms of gospel and jazz that he absorbed from his friend Nina Simone. The show gets a breath of life with the entrance of Amber Iman, a dynamic young performer who makes a striking Broadway debut in the role. The voice is rich and smoky in “I Put a Spell on You” and “You Know How I Feel,” radiant in the gospel numbers, and on top of that, she can actually act.
In Act II, which is just as jam-packed with incident and rhetoric as Act I, the focus shifts to San Francisco, where the peace-and-love message of Shlomo’s music goes over big with the young hippies who embrace him as their guru-rabbi. But at this point all the songs have begun to sound alike, and by the time Iman comes to the rescue, it’s just too late.