Review: A charming 'Soul Doctor' returns to NY

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — You don't have to be Jewish to love Shlomo — but it helps.

The biographical musical "Soul Doctor," about real-life "singing rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, which was on Broadway briefly last year, has begun an off-Broadway run in a most fitting location. Revised and trimmed by an hour, a charmingly homespun and upbeat production opened Sunday night within a synagogue at the intimate Actor's Temple Theatre in midtown.

Carlebach, given an air of beatific innocence by Josh Nelson, is credited with popularizing Jewish music to appeal to young people. Starting in the turbulent 1960s, he infused traditional songs and those he wrote himself with folk, jazz and gospel elements.

"Soul Doctor" uses adaptations of his original music and lyrics, with additional lyrics by David Schechter, to portray his musical evolution and his struggles with traditional Jewish beliefs. The music is sometimes lively, sometimes haunting, with keyboardist Seth Farber leading an energetic effort atop the set by the small Holy Beggar Band.

Director and choreographer Mindy Cooper keeps the small cast of about a dozen swirling around guitar-strumming Shlomo, enacting numerous roles at various stages of his life. Nelson sings passionately throughout, while maintaining an expression of transfixed wonderment. Dan'Yelle Williamson, in a star turn, gives a sultry and soulful persona to Nina Simone, a friend who encourages Shlomo to be true to his unusual musical vision.

The book by Daniel Wise skims the surface of Carlebach's life story, focusing on his "peace and love" philosophy, intriguing musical journey, and lifelong conflict with his father and other disapproving Orthodox community elders. Even his loving mother reproves him, with "Do you think the Jewish people survived 3,000 years — because we sang songs and gave out cookies?!"

The impressive wood paneled and stained-glass set is transformed by artful projections into locations ranging from Holocaust-era Vienna, to 1950s and '60s New York nightclubs and parks, eventually becoming Shlomo's House of Love and Prayer for runaways in Berkeley, California.

While the musical may have a limited appeal, it's brightened by Shlomo's uplifting spiritual messages and the book's quirky humor. Comedic readings soften some of the clumsier lines, as when Young Shlomo (Hayden Wall) asks about finding joy and is told by his stern rabbi, "Being a Jew is about pain and suffering! Joy is for the gentiles." Shlomo overcomes the negativity, continuing to seek and spread love and joy, which is not a bad theme for a musical.