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.
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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.