Having elsewhere in these cyber-pages—in this same battery of late-August 2013 reviews—bemoaned the proliferation of A-plus craftsmanship spent on the trivial and trendy in new musicals, I hasten to add, I find it even more disheartening to encounter a new musical like Soul Doctor, which should be setting the “finer example” but can’t. This would be a lot easier to take if it were horrible.
A biographical musical, it tells the story of Schlomo Carlebach, who witnessed WWII atrocities as a child (Teddy Walsh) in Vienna, before his father, seeing the writing on the wall, moved his family to America, Brooklyn to be precise. A dedicated, orthodox Jew, Schlomo studied from an early age to become a rabbi, and as a young man (Eric Anderson), sought expression of his faith through music. Discovering he had a connection to popular jazz, folk and even rock music, he tried to introduce the new vocabulary into his community, where it was met with instant resistance and rejection. Even though he understood the risk to his standing, he strove to follow his heart and his musical inspiration, and took to combining devout religious text with secular melody of his own composition, accompanying himself on guitar. In short order, he was discovered by a record producer and became a recording phenomenon, often known as “The Singing Rabbi”; his concerts took him around the world and during the 60s hippie years he parked himself for a long time in San Francisco, where he opened a center called the House of Love and Prayer and attended to the disaffected, disenfranchised Jewish youth of the area, including drug addicts and runaways, reconnecting them with their faith and families.
Dramatically speaking, Schlomo’s goal is tangible enough to work as a quest; those who functioned as his inspirational triggers, in particular future pop star Nina Simone (Amber Iman) are interesting enough supporting characters to be idiosyncratic and entertaining; and the barriers he had to overcome, put up by his family and native community, and a little by his own initial naivete, are sufficient to function as a collective protagonist. There’s enough of a real story here, with a larger-than-life hero, conflict and propulsive forward movement, to motor a musical.
And it does. Sort of. The problem is, the authors aren’t delivering an A-level game.
They’re all veteran professionals whose credits, and whose work on Soul Doctor suggest that they’ve been in and around the business enough to have developed a certain base-level proficiency. Daniel S. Wise’s book (and direction) are attuned to economical narrative and guiding key story points toward song; his collaborator lyricist David Schecter likewise lands on the right things to sing about, with the right characters singing. (Actually, the focus somewhat falls apart in the middle of Act Two; once Schlomo enters his Haight-Ashbury phase he runs out of quest and the show starts to meander; but let’s assume that’s fixable, and I believe it is, or at least might have been.) But Wise and Schecter, at least within the confines of this material, are mediocre writers. Dialogue and lyrics that should crackle, inspire or transcend are often amusing but rarely clever or insightful; for the most part they’re merely functional. A score that should be powerful and/or deeply moving likewise merely gets the job done, with the familiar ethnic-rhythmic carpentry appropriate to the moment, but no melodies that rise above the generic.
Ironically, the shortfalls of the music lie in the fact that (with the exception of a couple of public domain jazz-crooner songs for the nightclub scene in which we meet Nina Simone) it has all been drawn and adapted from Carlebach’s catalog of recorded songs. And Carlebach wrote short melodies in a Jewish folk-music idiom about religious faith. And he didn’t read music. His palate was limited to what he could create by ear, strumming on his guitar. Which is not a well deep enough for the richness of drama in a musical theatre context. (What has, since The Producers, become the standard credit for a composer-surrogate workerbee who fleshes out material created by a note-illiterate tunesmith is “music supervisor” and in this case, that title goes to Brian Koonin. I don’t think he’s to be blamed. In such a situation you’re only as dynamic as your source material allows you to be. And I hasten to add, that has nothing to do with how effective Carlebach’s material may be on its own terms. A book musical perforce introduces a whole different set of requirements.)
There’s also a strange kind of “score confusion.” Since all the music is drawn from the Carlebach catalog, there’s not much aesthetic difference between the tunes used to advance the story and the tunes meant showcase Schlomo in performance, so the two kind of run together and both feel a little diluted because of it.
The cast is generally quite fine, with lead performances that don’t quite rock at star level, but very agreeably hit all the familiar ethnic tropes with grace, humor and humanity—in particular Eric Anderson as Schlomo—but then, perhaps the actors are limited by the “glass ceiling” of the material too.
This should have been so much better. How wonderful if it could be as simple as saying Soul Doctor, heal thyself…
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