By Marion DS Dreyfus
Directed, and Book/Libretto by Daniel S. Wise, Music/Original lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach, Lyrics by David Schechter, Choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer
One place you would probably put on the bottom of your list for a 2½-hour song-and-dance filled bio of an ecstatic, unconventional rock-soul rabbi would be Broadway. It's not that Soul Doctor is not innately interesting, especially given Rebbe Shlomo Carlebach's heretofore unknown working alliance with the great Nina Simone.
It's just that the Broadway demographic, much less the minions (minyans!?) of the NYC tourist influx, does not usually bend its attention and dollars heavily in the direction of upgraded Orthodox prayer nigunim. Or expend its eager hands and feet to how a fortunate immigrant from Nazi Vienna overcame his reluctance to perform in mixed company, engage with non-members of the tribe, and managed to magnificently expand the message of hedonic Hebrews to the public at large.
Without a prior familiarity of what we were to experience, it was with shock that I realized the play was a musical based on another man I had so many times met, and whose beloved music I played hour after hour, especially when I worked with kindergarten classes. Reb Shlomo, whose musical legacy in the shul-going community is the equal of Elvis, escaped as a child with his middle-class family -- father, mother, brother -- from Nazi-dominated streets of Vienna, a rebel even as a child.
As the Playbill says: It is the real-life story of the "rock-star rabbi" and his unexpected pairing with soul singer Nina Simone come to musical life, thanks to his daughter Neshama and some faithful followers. Although Reb Shlomo died far too prematurely in 1994 (I was one of thousands who went reverentially to the massive funeral turnout on the Upper West Side, surrounding the Rebbe's synagogue on West 79th Street and West End Avenue), he is still a force in the Jewish musical world. And how great it was, after seeing Let It Be, some weeks ago, to be familiar with every single musical number and tune in the lively, joyously choreographed offering at Circle in the Square. For the first half-hour of this serio-comic soul-stir songfest and dancelabra, I feared it would fail. Fail to properly revere the man and his gorgeous tapestries of mesmerizing melody. Fear that the audience would hoot or yawn in mockery or disinterest. Why would this SRO crowd pack the Circle, with its wonderful and multi-tiered arena seating, its sky-high ticket prices? As the play progressed, with regular dollops of ecumenical but warm-hearted dialogue and insightful threading of history and biography, my fear of humiliations-undefined evaporated.
The emerging play was tweaked last year at the NY Theatre workshop. The constructive critical acclaim and fixes have smoothed out any edges that might have been dismaying. Even here, a few words were continually mispronounced, as if some consultants forgot to tell the cast how to pronounce basic words like Shabbos (Sabbath). But that is a small nit. And what emerged was that the difficult task of combining the emerging long-locked rebbe with his adoring acolytes, and the combinatorial prowess of the music of black soul activated by Carlebach's friendship and working tutorials from Simone, the show accomplished something rather magical.
The dances combined age-old rhythms and movements of the yeshiva, shul habit, zmirot (savory songs sung at the Sabbath table), and went into the gyrations of Shlomo in ecstatic roilings and leaps. It did not offend, in other words, by rendering the spiritual hedonisms of the Rebbe's hypnotic shocklings and jumps into something coarse and... coarsened. This is not Fosse, in other words. It is, however, fancy. And unaffectedly fabulous. The star, Eric Anderson, is admirably liquid of voice, and moves well, leaping and jumping as Carlebach did. Anderson assumes a slope-shouldered gait that Reb Shlomo never had, though his demeanor was, true, always humble, despite his throngs of admirers.
Anderson misses completely the soft-voiced whispery suggestiveness Reb Shlomo always spoke with (especially on the 'phone). And Anderson or the script makes him a little too sanctimoniously holy. Reb Shlomo was a noted admirer of women and girls, causing more than a few Jewish lads to question this too-easy familiarity and cuddling gropism/tropism. His daughter may not have seen him in action, as it were.
The set (Neil Patel) is a serviceable multi-site collage of walls, drapes and stairs that transforms easily from Nazi streets to nightclubs, Sabbath dining table to schoolroom. Costumes (Maggie Morgan) and seamless lighting design (Jeff Croiter) span five decades, plus. One must also admire that the play is respectful to Rebbe Schneerson, Shlomo's muse and spiritual head of the Lubavicher sect of fervid Observant Jews. Reb Schneerson and Reb Shlomo died just a year apart, though the elder Rebbe was many years older than Carlebach, who died of a heart attack at just 69, flying to a concert.
Nor is it disrespectful of the sometime quirks and prohibitions of Orthodoxy, such as separate seating and not behaving immodestly with members of the opposite sex. It may not be coincidental that two daughters of two great Jewish talents have lovingly created plays to celebrate their famous fathers. Nachama Mason wrote her comic play about pere comic, Jackie (not totally a hagiographic enterprise, to be sure); and Neshama (her very name means "soul") Carlebach created this moving, wildly "hybridic-Hebraic" Soul Doctor, blending upjazzing of venerable liturgical tradition with the heart-stirring strains and evocative movement of soulful Nina Simone (Amber Iman, drop-dead stunning as the singer). Girls showing their familial soul via lavishing of emotion on their fiercely admired fathers.