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Soul Doctor

The musical about Shlomo Carlebach returns to New York after a quick Broadway closing in 2013.

Josh Nelson (center) plays Shlomo Carlebach in the musical Soul Doctor at the Actors' Temple Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

In the pantheon of underappreciated musicals, it's safe to say that Soul Doctor, a Broadway flop that barely lasted the summer of 2013, isn't on anyone's top-10 list of shows that are crying out for a revival. And yet, after a three-week off-Broadway tryout run in 2012 and 98 total performances at the Circle in the Square last year, this theatrical biography of Jewish folk singer Shlomo Carlebach is trying its luck in New York City once again, this time at The Actors' Temple Theatre. And there's only one question: why?

In recent interviews, its creators have said this is a new version of the show, one that is closer to their fundamental vision. The running time has been reduced from nearly three hours to 100 intermission-free minutes. Whole swaths of Daniel S. Wise's book have been cut, mostly the original second act, to place the emphasis on Carlebach's music. But it doesn't really help. Even though Mindy Cooper's direction brings a focus that wasn't present before, she can't disguise the ineptness of Wise's book, the awkwardness of David Schechter's lyrics, or the unexciting cast.

Given that Carlebach's own daughter Neshama is credited with "additional material" and "grant of [life] rights," it shouldn't be surprising that Soul Doctor paints a sanitized portrait of her father. While the real Shlomo, who died in 1994, left behind melodies that changed the face of Jewish liturgy, he also left behind numerous allegations of sexual impropriety, while becoming a pariah in several communities for not following religious teachings. It's a legacy that would normally lend itself to the creation of a complex and multifaceted character and of a work that acknowledges the flaws of people we hail as gods.

Book writer Wise, who also directed the original, chooses to show the saintly version: Shlomo (Josh Nelson) and his family move to America after fleeing the Nazis, he grows disenfranchised with his strict Orthodox upbringing, he has a chance encounter with a then-unknown jazz singer named Nina Simone (Dan'Yelle Williamson), he becomes the father of popular Jewish music. The story might be shorter now, but it's just as dull as it was before, with the same cheap laughs (when asked, "You heard of Peter, Paul, and Mary?" Shlomo responds, "I don't know much about the New Testament"), and a whole lot of head-scratching jumps in time and logic.

Nelson, a Jewish musician (and Neshama Carlebach's boyfriend), and Williamson, a veteran of Rocky and Memphis, have little genuine chemistry to go along with their strong voices. The rest of the 12-member ensemble doesn't fare much better. By the end, the whole show seems more like a community-theater production, a feeling aided by the performance space, ostensibly the social hall of a synagogue (David Goldstein did the set, which plays up that motif). It's gone from bloated and overblown to tiny and undernourished. Let's just say the Mourner's Kaddish and be done with it.


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