Is there a doctor in the house? Not a medical doctor, or even a “soul doctor” – whatever that is – but what is known on Broadway as a “show doctor,” an experienced playwright or director who can step in at the last hour and salvage a musical with serious book problems? Soul Doctor, a strange, overstuffed but undeniably heartfelt new musical about the life of rabbi and singer-composer Shlomo Carlebach, which comes off as a sanitized mix of The Jazz Singer, Fiddler on the Roof and Hair, is itself badly in need of such help.
Carlebach, who fled Nazi Europe with his family as a child and went on to make Jewish prayer appealing to the flower children of the 1960s with an acoustic guitar, folk melodies and an accepting spirit, is a fascinating figure, and his music, which has been supplemented with new lyrics by David Schechter, can be quite catchy at times.
The conflicts – which mainly revolve around Carlebach being caught in the middle of his strictly Orthodox Jewish family and his new friends, mostly notably the African-American jazz singer Nina Simone – are all dealt with in superficial and haphazard brushstrokes. Many of the scenes of dialogue are superfluous or just plain jarring, such as an early one where a young Nazi soldier nonchalantly opens fire on a jolly, singing homeless man on a Vienna street corner. Another where two young boys start to dance is cute but bizarre. The finale, where Carlebach makes amends with a disapproving rabbi, reeks of fakeness and sentimentality.
If Soul Doctor were premiering at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, or maybe being produced Off-Off-Broadway by some well-intentioned Jewish not-for-profit, one could easily conclude that the project could be salvaged with some structural changes. But Soul Doctor has already toured regionally and even had a short Off-Broadway run last year. Clearly, the show’s producers and director-book writer Daniel S. Gordon either don’t wish to or are unable to improve it.
The production is also ill suited to the Circle in the Square, which is designed for shows staged in the round, while Soul Doctor is performed on a proscenium stage set up at the rear of the theater. As a result, nearly every audience member will have a slanted view.
But in spite of all these problems, one is still tempted to cut Soul Doctor some slack in light of its open-hearted, religious and accepting tone and overlook. It does contain a handful of cute and genuinely moving moments, and it’s hard to resist clapping along to the prayers at one time or another.
As Carlebach, the bearded, yarmulke-wearing Eric Anderson provides an energetic and enthusiastic performance that captures the character’s warm spirituality and sensitivity. Anderson is nicely supported by Amber Iman, who brings a self-assured, authoritative edge as Simone.
Too bad they couldn’t have just done a concert of Carlebach’s work intercut with bits of narration instead of this lame, amateurish and self-indulgent bio musical.