Now we have Soul Doctor, the latest in the ignominious line of WTF musicals, although the show's quality is a lot closer to that of Scandalous than that of A Catered Affair. In fact, Soul Doctor is pretty atrocious. But even if the show were a whole lot better than it is, it's hard to imagine there would be many people outside of the Jewish community, plus maybe fans of offbeat musical theater, who would have any interest in seeing a musical about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a minor figure in pop music from the 1960s to his death in 1994. The show's tag line sorta says it all: "Journey of a Rockstar [sic] Rabbi." Is that supposed to attract rock fans? Rebellious Jews? Soul Doctor really feels like a show without a country.
"What about Fiddler on the Roof?," you might ask. Well, Fiddler was an extraordinarily well-crafted musical that transcended its subject matter and painted a compelling portrait that nearly anyone could identify with. Heck, I performed in Fiddler at my Catholic high school in the early '80s. Whereas Soul Doctor is a show only a Jewish mother could love, and an extremely forgiving one at that.
Soul Doctor features book and direction by Daniel Wise, with lyrics by David Schechter, plus music and additional lyrics by Carlebach himself, drawn from his considerable song catalog. For a show that purports to be about the power of Carlebach's music and message, there's very little that's transportive or inspiring about Soul Doctor. The overall tone of the production is dour and dreary, albeit with occasional moments of joy.
The book to Soul Doctor is rather diffuse, making the same mistake as Chaplin, another WTF musical from last season, in trying to tell too much of the story of a man's life and not sufficiently developing the events and people along the way. For instance, when young Shlomo is in still in Vienna, before his family is driven away by the Nazis, he encounters this person/life spirit/mythical being named Moishe, who exhorts young Shlomo to heal the world with song. Moishe is then summarily shot dead by a Nazi soldier. It's not clear who this Moishe is, nor why his words have such a lasting impact on Shlomo. And that's pretty much how the book proceeds, with random characters who enter the story, serve their purpose, then disappear.
Another of these characters comes in the form of a young boy who sings one of Carlebach's first songs in the synagogue of Carelbach's rabbi father. One of Carlebach's life goals, the show tells us, was to bring the message of God to the people through music that was more appealing to a younger congregation. Later in the show, Carlebach, played by the talented and sympathetic Eric Anderson, meets up with this now-older young man at a concert. The young man tells Carlebach: "You encouraged me to open people's hearts. So I became a cardiac surgeon." All that for a rimshot-worthy attempt at hoary humor, with which Soul Doctor is decidedly replete.
Most of the intended drama of Soul Doctor comes from Carlebach breaking free of the strictures of his orthodox faith, but the show focuses on these family conflicts at the expense of its larger goal: to celebrate the power of Carlebach's work. Indeed the show only works sporadically, mostly when it explores the unlikely friendship that Carlebach had with Nina Simone, played here with smoky intensity by Amber Iman. When Simone/Iman enters the scene, Soul Doctor suddenly becomes interesting, with a subtle dynamic of underlying attraction and approach/avoidance. This nuance disappears again when Simone leaves the story, and returns when she does, which makes me think that it's the actress and not Wise's writing that's responsible for the show's intermittent spark.
Once Soul Doctor actually gets to Carlebach's performances and the power of his songs, the show again catches momentary fire, but the spark comes too late, and there's not enough to keep the fire burning. The second act completely falls apart in a series of clumsy blackout scenes, ill-conceived (and laughable) dance sequences, and a mad dash to the finish. It feels as though the show was drastically cut at the last minute and author/director Wise failed to see that the pieces weren't quite fitting together. The effort appears to be in vain. Soul Doctor shows every sign of becoming a late-summer casualty.