Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler takes a visit to the Soul Doctor and fills a prescription for a heartwarming good time at one of the first new musicals to open this season on Broadway.
I grew up in the Reform Judaism movement of the 70s, where (supposedly) historical traditions and practices converged with modern interpretation and insights. I mostly slept through Sunday School and woke up only for the requisite grape juice and challah snack. Perhaps if Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach had been present, infusing his spirit of love and acceptance among the bored and assimilated, I would have also packed my bags and migrated to San Francisco to partake in the House of Love and Prayer. (Yeah, man.)
Carlebach (portrayed with magnetic and loving charm by Eric Anderson) is the subject for Soul Doctor, a new Broadway musical. Soul, it has—but this sweeping story of artistic expression born out of the horrors of the Holocaust, also could use a brain surgeon to rework the material in a way that more aptly gets to the essence of the story.
Soul Doctor’s linear storytelling churns far too long in Shlomo’s childhood. The son of a Rabbi, he and his family were forced to vacate Austria in response to the Nazi invasion. Settled in New York City, he and his brother Eli (played by Ryan Strand) discover the Hasidic Judaism movement as well as the multiculturalism of a new land. Wandering downtown, Shlomo stumbles into a Greenwich Village bar and meets none other than Nina Simone (played by Amber Iman). It is in this scene that Soul Doctor transcends from musical biography to something wholly unique. Anderson and Iman’s chemistry is both subtle yet palpable as these two characters born into entirely different circumstances find commonality through music.
This relationship gets muddled as the plot thickens (or thins depending on how you look at it.) Ruth (Zarah Mahler), a thinly constructed love interest, arrives on the scene near the end of Act I and follows Shlomo west as he establishes the House of Love and Prayer. Shlomo’s cardinal desires seem to haunt him as his theological teachings and music evolve over the years. As the play concludes, Shlomo returns to Vienna for a powerhouse concert that reconciles his traumatic past.
Much can be forgiven in Soul Doctor, due to Anderson and Iman’s beautifully grounded and compassionate performances. Ron Orbach, who portrays stilted Rabbi Pinchas among other characters, adds additional gravitas and Broadway-caliber acting chops to the mix.
But there are a few elements that almost derail this heartwarming production. It looks cheap. At $135/ticket, half the audience will find themselves staring across the theater at each other in the poorly configured space. And when they do crank their necks, they’ll be looking at a set design by Neil Patel that serves utilitarian purpose but lacks innovation and originality.
The small ensemble is forced into roles and characterizations that don’t suit them at all, including a catastrophic Chassidim scene where the females are dressed like they’re attending a Yentl Halloween party. The choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer is achingly overwrought—a mash-up of Alvin Ailey- and Martha Graham-inspired movement with a bit of Fiddler on the Roof thrown in for (not so) good measure. The story itself has movement and life and would be better served by “staging” rather than show-off miniature pas de deuxs.
That being said, Soul Doctor not only has soul, but a very big, warm and welcoming heart. For those interested in the music of Shlomo Carlebach, it is an unusual Broadway treat and tells a compelling story of how music can change the world.