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Review: A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill Dabbles With Noir but Fails to Deliver the Goods

The new musical is making its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Zehra Fazal, Rivkah Reyes, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Jahbril Cook, and Jill Sobule in A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill at Geffen Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)

If you ever wondered what it would be like for composer William Finn (Falsettos) to musicalize an episode of Dateline, your dream has come true. A world premiere folk musical, A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill, now running at the Geffen Playhouse, features the germ of a good idea, but the execution is sloppy and confounding.

A Jewish Community Center in modern-day Cherry Hill, New Jersey, puts on its annual program, a remembrance of a tragedy that befell the small, mostly Jewish, town in the mid '90s. Their play focuses on a charismatic new rabbi (Danny Rothman) who wanted everyone to call him Fred, had formed a temple, and quickly entranced the congregants, especially the wayward wives. He had instigated an affair with a widow, and eventually decided his own wife, a kindly caterer, was in his way.

Matt Schatz's fully sung-through play-within-a-play tangles with ideas that were James M. Cain's bread and butter. Cain's novels' amoral characters in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice ignite passions so engulfing that in-the-way spouses lose their purpose for being. Unlike the murderers of Cain's novels who leaped off the page and into our imaginations, Rabbi Fred is a narcissistic psychopath who violates his vulnerable congregants and sees everyone as a vehicle of adulation for him or merely a waste of his precious air. Those characteristics are cold, and uninviting. Villains bewitch audiences in compelling noir, making us sometimes want them to get away with murder; but here, there's no connection to the alien creature of Fred. The play invests no time in his relationship with his wife, or his mistress. At 90 minutes, the play is a sketch as opposed to a fully engrossing tragedy.

The format of the play-within-a-play distances the audience further. These aren't Fred, his wife, and congregants sharing their story, these are members of the JCC who each year share this tale in-between the chopped liver and the rugelach. Though the actors on the Geffen stage are professional, the actors at the JCC are not, and the amateurish exuberance they convey makes the true and vile story of Rabbi Fred seem frivolous. Also, if the audience is to believe this is a Shabbas skit, performed among families, the many curse words and sexual innuendoes – including those in an erotic song that implies orgasm sung by the naughty wives who lust after Fred – are clearly out of place.

Schatz utilizes folk music throughout the evening, sewing in some melodies that would be familiar to active Jewish temple congregants, and he has a good sense of rhythm. Some of the melodies are clever and constructive. Folk makes sense, since this "play" has been written and produced by the JCC members, but it also trivializes the crimes and the anger. The tone of the piece is cheery, but the subject is lurid. A hybrid of rock and folk, a clashing of tones, may have benefited the show's mood. The lyrics, though, are problematic. No victims were beaten with a lead pipe as hard as the audience was bludgeoned by those poor rhymes schemes, making the lyrics sound like they were written by a Dr. Seuss wannabe.

The cast is talented, but the script gives them little with which to work. Rothman gives off a Jim Jones vibe, sexy and controlling, the audience isn't given the chance to understand his motives. Fred is Fred Neulander, an actual Rabbi from Cherry Hill, who did hire two men to murder his wife in 1994. Since this story is based in truth, the sketchiness of the subject, who is still alive in prison, is disappointing. Jill Sobule, a pop-artist from the '90s, plays Fred's wife as an adorable pixie, so her death seems uncomfortably cruel. Zehra Fazal has a lovely voice as the widow, but the play also limits her by not delving into her love/lust for the rabbi, while never revealing her thoughts on the crimes committed for her.

Dane Laffrey's set, a banquet hall at a JCC, looks like every JCC on the East Coast, particularly with those stone-lined walls. Raquel Barreto's costumes ingeniously look like a hodge-podge of personal collections that each JCC member would have brought in to dress their characters.

Writer Schatz and director Mike Donahue are down a solid road. The concept itself of a community healing by remembering the past, is a major tenet of Judaism. At least two essential holidays, Purim and Passover, exist for that very reason. But the tone is muddled, and the author may have hobbled himself by sticking to the facts of the Fred Neulander case. Had he used the crime as a stepping-off point and brought in new aspects to flesh out the characters, particularly the wife and mistress, the audience would have understood the relationships better and been more intrigued. In its present form, it falls flat.