In “Soul Doctor,” the new musical inspired by the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, there’s a moment of transcendence in the first ten minutes.
In flashback Vienna 1940’s, a young Shlomo (Hayden Wall) runs into an elderly Jewish man, Moishaleh (Anthony Laciura) who greets the young lad with a cheerful, “Good Shabbos!”
To which young Shlomo replies: “You know it’s Tuesday?”
Undeterred, Moishaleh sings “Once in a Garden (Essa Einai)” so joyfully, so exuberantly that soon the other fearful yellow-starred Viennese join in dancing in the streets.
The moment is cut short by the arrival of a Nazi, whose very presence causes the other Viennese to turn away in fear. But Moishaleh extends “Good Shabbos” even to the enemy of his people. Whose reaction one can, unfortunately, easily guess.
If “Soul Doctor” — and, indeed, the best parts of the historical Carlebach’s life — revolve around any ideal, it’s this: the importance of defiant joy within this world of suffering.
By and large, this latest incarnation of "Soul Doctor," currently playing Off-Broadway at the Actor’s Temple manages to tease out that idea. Shlomo’s father (a commanding Don Meehan), a ninth generation Rabbi, declares that study of the Torah is not meant to be fun, and that Judaism is about being a suffering people. Later, when Shlomo’s brother Eli (Jacob Heimer, arresting and underused) joins the Rebbe in the Lubavitch revolution, we see the urgent drive for joy firing these young men.
This defiant joy is most prominently displayed in Carlebach’s meeting with soul-singer, Nina Simone — here portrayed by the mesmerizing Dan’yelle Williamson, who lends passion and pathos to the struggling singer, rising above her role as Carlebach’s muse to wholly embody a woman breaking free of every label society placed on her. If Carlebach’s life story and interwoven music is insufficient to tempt you to see "Soul Doctor," Williamson’s multi-octave range and towering presence are a must.
Unfortunately, while the musical is neatly written, woven through with Carlebach’s original songs, the final conclusion never quite manages to return to the heroic act of Moishaleh. But how could a gentle Synagogue love-in ever compare to a man who extended the joy of Shabbos, even to his murderer?
Regardless, this latest production of "Soul Doctor" is well worth seeing, with several notable performances, Carlebach’s music, clever projections that transform the Actor’s Temple from Vienna to New York to San Francisco, and an invitation to join in the never-ending dance that began once, in a Garden.
“Soul Doctor” performs at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, NYC. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m., and Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Emily C. A. Snyder is an internationally published and produced playwright, as well as the Artistic Director of Turn to Flesh Productions. Her original five-act iambic pentameter play, Cupid and Psyche, premiered at The Barrow Group Theatre for Valentine's 2014.