Nearly everyone has heard this ubiquitous joke setup, and nearly everyone who has heard it expects it to precede any number of satisfying punch lines. Thus, it follows that a musical predicated on this same premise would promise a rewarding payoff. However, Soul Doctor—the biographical account of the real-life Rabbi-turned-singer/songwriter Shlomo Carlebach currently enjoying a post-Broadway run at the Actors Temple Theatre—plays more like an inside joke than a universal one. Doling out saccharine sweet sentiments and moral lessons, Soul Doctor wears its heart on its sleeve, but its appeal and scope are severely limited.
My subsequent research has revealed that—not unlike the aforementioned joke—Shlomo is perhaps the most ubiquitous figure in Jewish music, and consequently his story likely bears more cultural weight for his religious compadres than it does for the self-confessed goy writing this review. However, my separate cultural background should not preclude me from enjoying a good story: I am not Jewish, and yet Fiddler on the Roof engrosses me; I am not a dancer, and yet A Chorus Line reduces me to tears; I am not a muppet, and yet Avenue Q makes me laugh out loud.
Soul Doctor follows Carlebach from his humble beginnings to his meteoric rise as a [less than] Orthodox Rabbi and recording artist. Inspired by his childhood days in Nazi-occupied Vienna, his father’s teachings in the family’s Brooklyn shul, and a fateful meeting (in a bar, no joke!) with black Jazz singer Nina Simone, Shlomo composes a catalog of popular Jewish folksongs and cultivates a “Rockstar Rabbi” persona as a means of reaching out to millions of dispossessed Jews. However, his success comes at a price: Shlomo’s decision to abandon certain strict religious practices in favor of more liberal policies effectively alienates him from his family and Orthodox community.
These rich subjects—the evolution of religion in constantly changing historical contexts, the personal compromises required to affect change, and the cost of fame—seem like prime fodder for a compelling musical that transcends cultural bounds. However, bookwriter Daniel S. Wise manages to simplify his story’s moral ambiguities into banal platitudes that go down easy and leave little aftertaste. The result is a perfectly fine, sterile musical celebration devoid of any universally intriguing theme.
Similarly simple are the show’s songs. Largely variations on Shlomo’s work and with additional material by his daughter Neshema Carlebach as well as lyricist/co-creator David Schechter, the Soul Doctor’s tuneful folksongs add little to the show’s dramatic progression. Likewise, Schechter’s conspicuously added lyrics range from unremarkable to rhetorically troubling: “You lost your soul in Auschwitz/I lost mine in Washington Square Park” stands out as a particularly memorable couplet because of the borderline-offensive parallel it draws.
Leading the cast as the Soul Doctor is modern Jewish music composer and performer Josh Nelson, who compensates for his less-than-nuanced acting chops with a disarming smile; his bumbling, innocent Shlomo is no less (or more) than endearing. The cast’s true standout, however, is Dan’yelle Williamson, whose powerful vocals and passionate portrayal of Nina are perhaps enough to justify a visit to the Actors Temple Theater. Under Mindy Cooper’s heartfelt direction, she and Nelson share a unique, platonic chemistry that is far more interesting than a single word of the script’s dialogue.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this remounted production is its venue. The Actors Temple Theatre—an intimate, stained glass-adorned synagogue—provides a surprisingly welcoming backdrop for this little show. Donning costume designer Tristan Raines’ authentic religious garb and hippie outfits, the cast members traipse up and down the aisles and across the stage to choreographer Mindy Cooper’s small, but effective synchronized moves. Likewise, lighting designer Zach Blane uses a vibrant color palette to treat the space with a healthy dose of personality; in fact, his rock concert treatment is, perhaps, more than the sterile script warrants.
If Shlomo Carlebach’s music holds a special place in your heart, then you will likely have a blast at this delightful, little homage of a show. If, like me, you could not name a single one of the “Rockstar Rabbi’s” songs, then this show will do little to inspire interest.
Soul Doctor (through January 25, 2015)
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-245-6975 or http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: 95 minute without an intermission