About a third of the way through “Soul Doctor,” a Broadway musical fashioned out of an impressive song catalogue and a remarkable true story, an Orthodox rabbi walks tentatively into a smoky Village piano bar. He hears an African-American woman deliver a cool jazz cover of Screamin Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.”
“Such gevalt music,” the rabbi exclaims to the performer when she’s finished, “Mamish the highest.” That’s Yiddish for: he liked it.
The woman looks at him dumbfounded.
This is the first encounter between jazz great Nina Simone and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — an encounter that, according to the musical that has now opened on Broadway, led to an extraordinary friendship that eventually turned Carlebach into “The Rock Star Rabbi” of the 1960’s, a singer/songwriter who composed thousands of melodies and gave concerts all over the world. When he died in 1994, one obituary reported that his music “is heard at virtually every Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah, from Hasidic to Reform.”
Some three dozen of the catchiest of these melodies are being presented at the Circle in the Square, with new lyrics in English that advance the show’s storyline. They are performed by a cast of almost two dozen, backed by “The Holy Beggars Band,” name borrowed from Carlebach. “A regular beggar, he’s begging you should give something to him,” Shlomo says in the show. “A holy beggar? He’s begging to give something to you.”
What “Soul Doctor” gives to you, besides the music, are two compelling performances — Eric Anderson (a veteran of Kinky Boots and South Pacific) as Rabbi Carlebach, and Amber Iman, making her Broadway debut, as Nina Simone. If this bio-drama can at times seem too pat to be credible or fully engaging, and too familiar — sparking unbidden flashbacks to everything from “The Jazz Singer” to “Hair” to (Heaven forbid) Kathie Lee Gifford’s “Scandalous” — Anderson and Iman reel us back to earth…or, rather, to someplace nearly spiritual.
Take that first scene between the two. Nina eventually warms to Shlomo and starts to shake his hand. He recoils as if shielding himself from bees. She is outraged: Is he really this racist? No, it’s not because she’s black, but because she’s a woman. “It’s Jewish modesty law. I’m forbidden to touch any woman.”
As the scene progresses, the two discover how much they share — religious backgrounds; experience as the victims of hatred, she in the South, he in Nazi Germany; their love of music. And the scene ends with “Ki Va Moed,” a moving, rousing song which reflects Carlebach’s fusion of Hasidic tradition with practices learned (via Simone) from Baptist choirs: (This is a video of the performance offered as part of the Broadway in Bryant Park concert series, without the costumes, sets or lighting):
Such a scene makes up for some of the others that seem more by-the-numbers, obligatory, filling up a show lasting two and a half hours that should have been trimmed by at least a half hour. We go through
his ugly childhood in Nazi-occupied Vienna the son of the chief rabbi
the family’s escape to Brooklyn
his conflicts with teachers and then fellow rabbis who try to shame him out of his joy. “Being a Jew is about pain and suffering; joy is for the Gentiles.” lectures Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), who is too much of a Jewish Javert to Shlomo’s Jean Valjean, hounding him for straying from strict observance over the decades in a way that is neither plausible nor very interesting.
Shlomo evolves — he learns the guitar, he plays in a Village nightclub, he makes some records, he performs in festivals with Bob Dylan, he moves to San Francisco, and in 1968 creates The House of Love and Prayer, a cross between a synagogue and a commune, at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. He gets rid of his Hasidic hat, wearing a hip-looking woven kipper instead and beads and colorful vests; he starts looking, in other words, like a hippie. He begins touching women.
Click on any photograph to enlarge
Reading even a short profile of the real Carlebach reveals a complexity to the man, and an elusiveness, that is mostly missing from “Soul Doctor.” To his Orthodox adherents, he was trying to lure young people back into observance. To his hippie (or post-hippie) admirers, he was applying the best traditions of his faith for a more modern and universal approach. He had his critics too, some reportedly accusing him of sexual harassment (an accusation that is not mentioned in the show.)
On the other hand, given that none of the accounts I read even mentioned Nina Simone, I wonder how much the two singers really loomed in each other’s lives. The choice to emphasize their relationship reportedly came at the suggestion of Carlebach’s daughter Neshama, herself a singer. “Soul Doctor” book writer and director Daniel S. Wise (who is himself an ordained rabbi with an extensive background in the theater) may well have agreed to do this in order to broaden the show’s appeal.
That’s fine with me. Perhaps it is not desirable, or even possible, to fit the full measure of a complicated person such as the real Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach within the narrow form of musical theater. But it is possible, and desirable, to bring his beautiful, spirited music to Broadway.
Circle in the Square
Music and additional lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach; book by Daniel S. Wise; lyrics by David Schechter; based on the real life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, grant of rights by Neshama and Nedara Carlebach; conceived by Jeremy Chess; created and developed by Schechter and Wise; additional material by Neshama Carlebach;
Directed by Wise; choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Maggie Morgan; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by John Shivers and David Partridge; wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.
Cast: Eric Anderson (Shlomo), Jacqueline Antaramian (Mother), Dianna Barger (Flower Child/Holy Beggar), Amber Iman (Nina), Abdur-Rahim Jackson (Sinner/Holy Beggar), Jamie Jackson (Father/Rebbe), Dillon Kondor (Band Leader/Holy Beggar), Zarah Mahler (Ruth), Vasthy Mompoint (Pastor/Blind Guitarist/Holy Beggar), Ron Orbach (Reb Pinchas/Recording Engineer/Announcer), Ian Paget (Nazi/Backup Singer/Dr. Joel/Holy Beggar), Michael Paternostro (Moisheleh/Milt), J C Schuster (Backup Singer/Holy Beggar), Eric J. Stockton (Synagogue President/Holy Beggar), Ryan Strand (Eli Chaim/the Holy Hippie) and Ethan Khusidman and Teddy Walsh (Young Shlomo/Young Eli Chaim/Chassidim/Joel/Ira) and Tara Chambers, Marie Conti, Alexandra Frohlinger, Heather Parcells (Holy Beggars).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one intermission