Why is it that no one seems able to make musicals about compelling religious people who, in their time, influenced millions of followers worldwide? I mean the religious aspect alone should provide enough conflict and stir up emotions. Now, Broadway is two for two in as many seasons in not making these people sing or soar. OK, so Soul Doctor isn't as heinously bad as last season's Scandalous, which was just bad on all levels, but this new show isn't that far behind. Where the former show was loud, obnoxious and poorly executed, the latter is the very definition of "underwhelming." I suppose it is guilty of the much bigger sin, if you will, though. And that is that Doctor left me feeling nothing - not bad enough to make me resent the time lost, not good enough to maintain much interest over the two and a half hours the show runs. In short, Soul Doctor has no soul.
So I have to start with the biggest unanswered question of evening: why was Shlomo Carlebach's life worthy of being turned into a Broadway musical? I have no idea. As presented, he was a precocious child who hated his religious education, and was moved to spread "the word" after witnessing the cold-blooded murder of a man he looked up to. (Sounds like an interesting plot point, right? More on this later...) And as an adult, he wandered the land, slump shouldered and frustratingly low-key and charisma free, singing to the disenfranchised hippies of the 1960's. And as mellow as a pot induced high, all of his songs sound exactly the same, with equally mind-numbing lyrics. (I've read that the show has more than two dozen of his songs as part of the show; there is no song list in the Playbill. Not that it would matter, really.)
I'll interject some good news here - there are two actresses that manage to make an impression. There's Zarah Mahler, who sings a lovely number in the second act, something, I think, about unrequited love and the amazing man who isn't loving her back. She makes the most of a part that has been reduced (so I've read) to a lost puppy of a gal wandering the country with her personal savior, hoping he'll even notice her. And there is the (relatively) spectacular Amber Imam, who, as Nina Simone, provides evidence that the better musical would have been about Ms. Simone's rise to fame despite incredible odds. Interesting, isn't it, that that is what I took away from this production. When she's onstage, Ms. Imam rules the place with a glow that gets to your very deepest emotional places. And every time she's off stage, you wonder when she'll be back.
One wishes that the same could be said for Eric Anderson who may or may not be doing a reasonable facsimile of the real Carlebach. And I don't care either way, because if he is imitating the real thing, Shlomo was one dull dude, and if he isn't, why was Anderson chosen to play this role? He sings OK, but his line delivery is maddeningly one note, and nothing he gets to do is compelling enough to justify this production.
And there is the supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles with equal mediocrity, directed to play broad, offensive stereotypes. (And I'm not even Jewish!) Why are all Jewish men portrayed as spineless, emasculated wimps who hide behind their religious studies (particularly the unfortunate portrayal of Shlomo's father by Jamie Jackson), while all Jewish women are shrill know-it-alls (particularly the almost laughably bad Jacqueline Antaramian as Shlomo's mother) who thrive on passive aggressive guilt trips and I-told-you-sos? Of course, there is the "crisis" point where they question the strength of their marriage - I wouldn't have been surprised if they broke into "Do You Love Me?". And faster than you can say "Tevye the milkman," along comes the unyielding old guy "teacher" full of sharp bon mots and fortune cookie wisdom, who has both the cliched voice of reason and the obvious climactic ultimatum duty. As if this wasn't cliche enough, Ron Orbach is so overblown that he is well beyond stereotype, and verges on caricature.
Adding to the tedium is the cheap, unattractive look of the production. Awash in Mediterranean blue, with a shockingly rickety wooden gate upstage center, the show looks more like a high school production of Mamma Mia than a Broadway show. Designed by Neil Patel, the chance to use the unique space of the Circle in the Square creatively has gone underutilized, now a forced proscenium stage with cheesy gauze curtains covering the band, suggesting more a community theatre production of Hair than a Broadway musical. (No offense to either high schools or community theatres!) Just as uninspired are the Halloween store grade costumes designed by Maggie Moran, including a dress worn in World War II era Europe that looked exactly like the dress my drama teacher wore to my graduation in 1984, and a whole set of Hasidic male costumes that were uniformly ill-fitting, much like what you might get if ordering the Fiddler on the Roof package from a costume company. Only lighting designer Jeff Croiter seems to have put any thought into the stage pictures he is adding to.
Perhaps the most glaring misstep (no pun intended) here, though, has to be the pretentious, self-aware choreography provided by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who has created dances that made me cringe and hide my face in my hands several times. A bizarre mix of 60's moves, Broadway camp and contemporary dance, the result of the overly self-conscious dancers is, well, embarrassing. The truth is that most of the dancing looks like something Saturday Night Live might come up with for a sketch that spoofs the much more real drama of So You Think You Can Dance. Chief among the over-doers is the scene-stealing - and entirely in all the worst possible ways - dance-antics of ensemble member Abdur-Rahim Jackson, who has set the bar low for those vying for this season's title of worst performance of the year. He overdoes EVERYTHING he is given to do - every dance move three times larger than anyone else on the stage, and the man works his Jimi Hendrix drag more than Hendrix himself ever did. (He's the guy in red above.)
As I mentioned before, there are plenty of plot points that sound like great opportunities for drama. But I think it says it all for both Daniel S. Wise's book and direction that a full 20 minutes is given to the impact of the Third Reich on the Jews of Vienna, culminating in a pivotal moment in young Shlomo's life, where a mentor is gunned down by a Nazi goes by barely noticed, while in the background, Jews are slowly shuffling through that gate into a red light. Is the audience in tears? Unified in a regretful shaking of heads? Angered shifting in seats? None of that happened by me or anyone else in the audience. Or how about when the family is sitting Shiva, and the return of Nina Simone causes an argument that boils down to a joke and a bad punchline? Or how about the arrival of Timothy Leary, who pretty much steals Carlebach's minions with the promise of Heaven in the form of psychedelic drugs? Those moments are played off like jokes. And the show's one attempt at actual humor - the awkwardness of Shlomo in the recording studio - has been reduced to a sight gag usually reserved for TV variety shows of yesteryear. I didn't even giggle.
Aside from an interesting Hair-like bit with a May Pole-like dance that sets up the rabbi's digs in San Francisco, the staging is very much a cavalcade of doing everything center stage, with long stretches of almost static book scenes. I suppose the "fraught with meaning" (read obvious and pretentious) stationing of various followers of Shlomo around the edges of the set staring at the action and, uncomfortably, at us in the audience, is meant to have some thematic importance. But in a show so painstakingly straight forward, anything that resembles symbolism (or even creative staging) looks ridiculously out of place and awkward. And Soul Doctor has the dubious distinction of being yet another show that would have benefited by having a separate director and book writer. With no one to edit him, Mr. Wise has crafted a rambling book full of details and factoids. A strong edit, including creating a point of view and a point, is seriously needed here.
If you crossbred Fiddler on the Roof, Memphis and Hair, you'd have what I think Soul Doctor is trying to be. But it has neither the energy, the heart nor the message of any of those musicals. The subtitle of the show, "Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi," is only partially true - the show is a journey by a rabbi. But save for three, yes, three, times when Anderson affects the logo pose, there is no "rock star" in sight.
(Photos by Carol Rosegg)