Oy gevalt. It’s not that there’s anything particularly terrible about Soul Doctor, the biographical musical about the late ”rock-star rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, but there isn’t all that much to recommend either. Carlebach is certainly an interesting figure: An Orthodox Jew who embraced pop music and hippiedom over traditional scholasticism and rose to prominence in the 1960s, he served as a striking countercultural counterpoint. But director Daniel S. Wise’s production — which consists mostly of a Judaic jukebox of Carlebach’s popular melodies — fails to achieve anything beyond a standard, and occasionally cringeworthy, retelling of his life.
Soul Doctor begins with a depiction of Carlebach’s early years in Vienna under the hard-soled boot of Nazism that is only a few notches below Springtime for Hitler in terms of unfortunate self-parody. A later interpretation of lovey-dovey life in late ’60s Haight-Ashbury is no less over the top, with dancing, LSD-tripping flower children so broad and nonspecific that they say ”far out” pretty much every other sentence. The main villain, a traditionalist cantor and Carlebach’s former teacher (Ron Orbach), is similarly caricatured, and the show’s shticky punchlines are as rusty and groan-producing as the pipes in an old house.
On the other hand, Eric Anderson, a goyim, is actually quite good as Carlebach, capturing a meek self-consciousness in his line delivery that then transforms into a roaring warmth once he begins to sing. He’s matched by Amber Iman, who manages a quality imitation of the generally inimitable songstress Nina Simone, who played a surprisingly influential role in Carlebach’s life. The relationship between Simone and Carlebach forms the backbone of the narrative, as their lives occasionally intersect. Their first scene together in a New York City piano bar — they bond over the power of music and contrast their experiences as members of a subaltern group (black in the American South, Jewish in Nazi-led Austria) — is easily the best in the show. But at two and a half hours, this overlong production has far too many that never reach such heights. C
(Tickets: www.Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)