A 2008 Israeli documentary about Shlomo Carlebach, “You Never Know,” features followers of the late rabbi visiting his grave in Jerusalem, recounting stories of meeting him, and talking about the immense impact that he had on their lives.
Watching the new Carlebach musical, “Soul Doctor” on Broadway, I thought about the title of that film, about how enigmatic the charismatic founder of modern Jewish music remains, despite all the people he touched. For all the singing hippies, scenes of Orthodox life, and — above all — joyful renditions of Carlebach songs, the energetic but haphazard show at the Circle in the Square only fitfully gives us access to its central characters’ inner life. And thus a show that aims for a kind of stratospheric spiritual uplift remains, for the most part, sadly earthbound.
“Soul Doctor,” directed by Daniel S. Wise, begins with Carlebach (Eric Anderson) in his youth in Vienna, entranced by a twirling, mystical, peace-loving rabbi in a patchwork coat whom he witnesses being shot dead by a Nazi guard. It follows his family’s flight to New York and his chafing at his father’s insistence to replicate Old World prayer services despite their lack of appeal to the younger generation in America. It shows him meeting Nina Simone (Amber Iman, in a sensational Broadway debut) in a downtown jazz club and, with his history of suffering from anti-Semitism, empathizing with her struggle against racism. It chronicles his founding the House of Love and Prayer to serve lost Jewish souls, including young drug addicts and runaways. Finally, it traces his building an international singing career that began in his father’s synagogue on the Upper West Side.
Throughout the musical, a cast of “holy beggars” in colorful, flowing costumes periodically fills the stage and spills out into the aisles and stairways of the auditorium. Devised by modern dance choreographer Benoit Swan-Pouffer, the movement, critics have noted, is a kind of cross between “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hair” (although without the nudity of the latter) — a gesturing to the impressive achievement of Carlebach in fusing the disparate worlds of chasidic and hippie life.
Anderson, who has appeared in “Kinky Boots” and “South Pacific,” is starring for the first time on Broadway. His voice is strong and supple, and he presents a kind of bland, self-effacing, innocent look that seems appropriate for someone who grew up in a fairly sheltered Orthodox environment. What he lacks is charisma, magnetism and stage presence. Carlebach (whom I once had the privilege of meeting) drew you in with his eyes closed more than most people can do with their eyes open.
Indeed, the inwardness of Carlebach was paradoxically the source of his seemingly boundless outwardness — his ability to connect so powerfully with other human beings. Anderson’s Carlebach, by contrast, seems bewildered and even discomfited by his own success. While the show tries to focus more on his psychology (at least more than when I saw it last year in Fort Lauderdale, when it was even more diffuse), it still never delves very deep.
The colorlessness of the main character stands in sharp contrast to the vividness of the other performers, especially Iman. Her portrayal of Simone is so eye-poppingly sultry and sensual that one wishes that she had a show of her own. The first-act duet of Carlebach and Simone, “Ki Va Moed,” is one of the best moments of the show. While it seems unlikely that Simone had as much of an effect on Carlebach in real life, as the show gives her credit for (and highly improbable that they ever kissed, as happens in the musical), the show suffers from not being able to show them having a real relationship. Another bit of sexual spark comes from winsome Ruth (Zarah Mahler), a runaway whom Carlebach saves; her sweet, lilting rendition of “I Was a Sparrow” is wondrous and moving.
But the show comes together only once, in the last scene of the first act, when a frustrating, unsuccessful session in the recording studio is saved by a confession from Carlebach that he cannot hear himself sing. With his headphones off, and with an enterprising intern hilariously keeping the standing microphone in front of him even as he shuckles, dances and jumps up and down, the recording finally captures the power and passion of Carlebach’s music. The scene is musical theater comedy at its best.
The cleverness and creativity that informs that scene is also somewhat on display in the musical’s witty book. Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), Carlebach’s melamed (yeshiva teacher) in Vienna, becomes the cantor of his father’s shul in New York; he describes himself as a “pedagogue with a pedigree.” Carlebach observes wryly that he is creating the House of Love on Berkeley’s Haight Street. And when the rabbi’s slick agent, Milt (Michael Paternostro), tells him that he will be performing with Peter, Paul and Mary, the rabbi rejoins that, alas, he is not too familiar with the New Testament.
But a clever book and a tuneful score are not enough for a good musical. The story is bogged down with the replaying of the same “Jazz Singer”-type scene over and over, as Carlebach’s father keeps trying to dissuade his son from departing from the Orthodox ways. The songs (many with re-written English lyrics by David Schechter) are well orchestrated but somehow never as infectious as I remember them from synagogue. And the main character seems enigmatic, his soul unplumbed. The show steers clear of any reference to Carlebach’s alleged sexual harassment of women; neither does it give any sense of what makes him tick, or what roils his soul.
As the lights came on for the intermission, the elderly Russian Jewish woman sitting next to me told me proudly that Shlomo Carlebach was her grandson. I looked at her in disbelief — how could she be Shlomo Carlebach’s grandmother — she would be 200 years old! And then she pointed to the program. “Ethan Khusidman — he plays Shlomo as a young boy.” I realized my silly mistake. And yet, I reflected, the genius of Carlebach was his ability to bridge time and space, to give even unlettered Jews (and non-Jews) unfettered access to the glories of chasidic wisdom. For all the limitations of the show, Carlebach’s spirit was, I realized, alive in this space, and in every place, both spiritual and secular, where his music continues to inspire, move, educate and awaken both Jewish and non-Jewish souls.
“Soul Doctor” is in an open run at the Circle in the Square Theatre (235 W. 50th St.). Performances are Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $135, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.