08/16/2013 02:26 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013

First Nighter: "Soul Doctor" Celebrates Singing Rabbi Carlebach

Consider it my embarrassing oversight that Shlomo Carlebach was news to me when I showed up for Soul Doctor, the new musical at Circle in the Square. Turns out he's a Jewish rabbi, who broke away from strictly traditional Orthodox Judaism several decades back because he believed there was a more direct way to gather followers. The religious zealot eventually fulfilled his dream by singing in streets around the globe before and after establishing the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco for the years 1968-72.
Incidentally, Rabbi Carlebach (1925-1994) shouldn't be confused with Matisyahu, the Jewish rapper getting attention currently. More than that, Soul Doctor shouldn't be confused with either The Jazz Singer, though it tells the same story of a man who defies his religiously strict father's wishes so he can entertain the masses. Nor should it be confused with Fiddler on the Roof, the longevity of which it patently aspires to attain by way of an audience that may not exist anymore. Nor, while I'm at it, should it be confused with Hair, for its eventual representation of the flower-power drug generation.
Employing the music and some lyrics Carlebach wrote (and played on the guitar he mastered once he quit his synagogue), librettist-director Daniel S. Wise (helped by Carlebach's daughter Neshama) and lyricist David Schechter have produced a stage bio meant to commemorate and glorify their ebullient subject, who's played ebulliently by Eric Anderson. (No, Ma, Anderson isn't a Jewish name, and he's not Jewish.)
Told as a flashback from 1978 Vienna, the city out of which the Carlebach family fled in 1938 and where Carlebach had at last agreed to return, the tuner rewinds to Shlomo as a child (Ethan Khusidman and Teddy Walsh share the role) and proceeds to and through his break with his father and his finding a career as an Orthodox Jew appealing to anyone who got his musical message.
How closely Wise adheres to the biographical facts is questionable at times. For instance, Nina Simone is introduced (and played by Amber Iman with great élan) as a catalyst for Carlebach's not only following his (Jewish) star but for throwing off Orthodox strictures, most notably the rule about touching any woman to whom he isn't married. The trouble is that anyone who ever saw Simone on stage will wonder whether the ceaselessly cheerful performer paraded here is in any aspect like the often sneering and self-absorbed, though forever brilliant, Simone.
One of Carlebach's champions is publisher and producer Milt Okun. He was responsible for arranging the Carlebach canon for records. As written by Wise and acted by wiry Michael Paternostro, this Milt is a fast-talking hipster. He's not the affable, enthusiastic, laid-back Okun, whom I did happen to know. Furthermore, there are those who say (you can look this up) that the father-son rift Wise depicts wasn't how it played out in real life.
By the way, Okun has the set-up for one of the tuner's many solid jokes. Meeting Carlebach, he asks whether the singing rabbi is familiar with Peter, Paul and Mary (the trio Okun produced to the top of '60s and '70s charts). Carlebach replies that he's not too well versed in the New Testament.
Furthermore, precisely who is the model for Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), Carlebach's recurring naysayer? Perhaps he's standing in for all the Orthodox men who objected to Carlebach's iconoclastic choices. Reb Pinchas probably also stands in for the (many?) Orthodox Jews who won't be too happy about how they're depicted in Wise's set-up, not that the librettist-director has exaggerated any of the Orthodox dictates.
Oh, well, dramatic license! Isn't it supposed to forgive all, and, indeed, unassailable biographical verisimilitude isn't what's wanted here. The idea is to excite the audience about Carlebach's musical fervor. That aim is obvious from the get-go when the invigorated Shlomo enters the auditorium with chanting and prancing followers whom he introduces as the Holy Beggar Band.
The invigorated players return repeatedly, often as hyper-energetically choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, and usually with the idea of getting the audience clapping along. The strategy works. The crowd with whom I attended couldn't get enough of that sort of pew-shaking participation, though no one leaped up to dance in the aisles. And speaking of the hora, which gets in swing at least once, wordsmith Schechter does grab the opportunity to rhyme "hora" with "Gomorrah."
If nothing else, Soul Doctor recalls the era when guitar services became the latest hope-based measure to bring the young back to sanctified spaces. Carlebach, who wasn't so much a rocker as a folksinger, is an example of the movement--and an infectious one at that.