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Soul Doctor

Eric Anderson and Erica Ash give stunning performances in this moving musical based on the true story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Erica Ash and Eric Anderson in Soul Doctor
(© Carol Rosegg)
Perhaps any story about a young Jewish man from a religious family who breaks with his pious father to become a popular singer is going to be compared to The Jazz Singer. But even though the story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach recalls the classc show biz story, the engaging and often moving new musical, Soul Doctor at New York Theatre Workshop, has a good deal more thematic depth that its predecessor.

Still, the show's book -- particularly the character development -- needs to be improved for this memorably ambitious work to become a completely formidable new musical.

While a good deal of dramatic license may have been taken, the essential truth of the tale has been captured. As a child, fleeing with his family from Hitler's Germany, by way of Vienna to New York, Shlomo was a devout and heralded Hebrew scholar. By the 1960s, however, he began writing a different kind of Jewish music that put him at odds with his orthodox community. Eventually, he recorded more than 25 albums and gave concerts all over the world, his music eventually becoming part of the fabric of contemporary Jewish prayer.

Soul Doctor begins and ends in Vienna at the 50th Anniversary of Kristallnacht with the aged Shlomo (Eric Anderson) coming back to the city that has haunted his dreams his entire life. It was here, the musical tells us, that the young Shlomo was influenced by a beggar who insisted on singing even when the Nazis decreed that there would be no singing in the streets -- and is shot dead for his "crime." This moment will ultimately be the motivating force in Shlomo's life.

The next key event in the musical is Shlomo's chance meeting with the young singer Nina Simone (Erica Ash). From this moment on, Shlomo will begin following his heart, and the show takes off with newfound energy and a richer sort of complications.

Director and bookwriter Daniel S. Wise keeps his sprawling story moving at a swift pace so that the two-hour-and-45-minute show never flags. Both the variety and the quality of Maggie Morgan's costume designs are especially impressive, as is the atmospheric lighting design by Jeff Croiter.

The show's power, however, ultimately comes from the music, which was written by Carlebach, with thrilling orchestrations by Steve Margoshes. Moreover, that music provides the springboard for Camille A. Brown's beautifully integrated choreography that gives muscle and movement to what might otherwise be a static story.

There is genuinely stunning singing provided by Anderson and Ash. In supporting roles, Steven Hauck provides dignity and baritone authority as Shlomo's demanding father, while Rachel Stern scores points as his mother. Also offering a star turn is Merideth Kaye Clark as one of Shlomo's most devoted followers. Thanks in part to all of them, Soul Doctor may soon have its own share of devoted followers, as well.


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