Monday, August 26, 2013

Soul Doctor

Soul Doctor is not the greatest show on the planet, for sure, but it's certainly not the worst, either--and while there are problems with the show that have been cited repeatedly by critics and other bloggers, I found myself enjoying it immensely nonetheless.

Shlomo Carlebach might not be a household name (at least not in non-Orthodox Jewish households, or in households that are even a few miles from the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street), but his approach to synagogue worship was both revolutionary and enormously influential. An early Schneerson follower, he was prominent in the baal teshuvah movement (in which a comparatively secular Jew "turns" toward Orthodoxy), and instrumental (pun intended) in infusing the contemporary worship service with music. If you've ever been to a synagogue service--whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform--in which congregants sing ecstatically, dance in the aisles, and intone extensive niggunim (Hasidic chants), you've likely witnessed Carlebach's influence whether you knew it or not. A devout Jew who devoted his life to outreach through music, Carlebach would seem to serve naturally as a central character in a musical.

Alas, as a straightforward biography, Soul Doctor doesn't deliver. As played by the excellent Eric Anderson, the stage version of Carlebach is a warm presence who repeatedly mentions his devotion to a mission he hasn't quite figured out how to define or set in motion, and utters the expression gevalt a lot. Clearly, the character's lack of depth is not the fault of the actor, who does a great job with what he's given. The weak book is the most frustrating part of the show, because it doesn't answer a lot of central questions: what was the tension between the Hasidic and Orthodox movements that are so central to Carlebach's upbringing, and if they're so central to his story, why aren't they explained? Who is this Ruth character who follows Shlomo across the country, and why is he afraid to get close to her (or, in this bio-musical, which ends before his 1972 marriage and the birth of his two daughters, to any of the women he works with?)? How did things with his brother and his tutor really resolve? Why the decision to end his story in 1972? Was he really all that close with Nina Simone? And speaking of Simone, did they have to give her some of the most cringeworthy lines in the show? "How do your people survive?" Carlebach asks her when they first meet. "We sing," she responds. Ugh, good Lord, haven't black-Jewish relations suffered enough since mid-century?

Okay, so the book is maybe inaccurate, occasionally confusing, features some clunky exposition, and hosts the occasional jaw-droppingly cliched or graceless line. I still dug Soul Doctor way more than I expected to, and so did all four of the people I saw the show with.

This is not only due to Anderson, but to a really great, warm, devoted cast. Amber Iman is absolutely wonderful as Nina Simone--I suspect she's on her way to big things. Whether or not Simone and Carlebach really were as close as all that, Anderson and Iman exude real trust and warmth; their first scene together is gentle, and moving, and truly lovely, as are many of the ones that follow. The supporting cast, too, is strong and committed; some of the dance numbers are beautiful and colorful and earnest, and the songs are--with a few snippets of Simone notwithstanding--all Carlebach's, and all catchy. And while the book fails to explain Carlebach's life clearly, it does a nicer, smoother job of capturing and examining the tensions and similarities that exist between the religious and secular words. Watching the young Carlebach negotiate the (increasingly freaked-out, increasingly confusing, increasingly countercultural) world outside his ultra-Orthodox enclave, all the while remaining true to himself, his Jewishness, and his musical mission, was the most interesting aspect of the show. And, of course, I went home eager to listen to more of his music and to read up about his life, which is, I suppose, the whole point of the show in the first place.

In short, then: While Soul Doctor is flawed, I came away feeling uplifted by its attempt to shed light on a lesser-known character and, more broadly, to portray Orthodox Jews in ways that don't sink so easily into caricature. The show may not deliver on all levels, but its intentions are as good as its central character's were. Book schmook! So, nu, what's so wrong with having a good time at the theater and learning about such a nice Jewish boy?

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