PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 10-16: Soul Doctor Opens, Rattlestick Presents The Hilltown Plays and Spider-Man Suffers Injuries

By Robert Simonson
August 16, 2013

It's been a summer of oddball attractions on Broadway. Last week saw the opening of First Date, a new musical created by nobody the New York theatre world has ever heard of. And this week we have Soul Doctor, a new musical created by nobody the New York theatre world has ever heard of.



Broadway entries out of left field often end up at Circle in the Square, one of the few houses on the Main Stem not owned by one of the Big Three theatre owners (Shuberts, Nederlanders, Jujamcyn). And so it was with Soul Doctor, the story of controversial "Singing Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, which was previously staged Off-Broadway, as well as in Florida and New Orleans.

Eric Anderson stars in the new musical ("Eric? This is a Jewish name?" — to quote Tony Kushner). Soul Doctor has a book by Daniel S. Wise, lyrics by David Schechter and music by, of course, Shlomo Carlebach. Wise directed.

Proving they are an inclusive bunch, the New York critics showed the religion-themed musical no favoritism. "Given this unusual blend of elements, it should be no surprise that Soul Doctor is a bizarre and at times bewildering musical," wrote the New York Times. "Carlebach's life certainly makes for a fascinating story...But Soul Doctor…lays out Carlebach's journey in mostly blunt, often hoary strokes...Mr. Anderson's performance is limited by the superficiality of Mr. Wise's book."

Variety chimed in, saying, "There's nothing transcendent about Daniel S. Wise's plodding book or Rabbi Carlebach's 'soulful' but dated music to lift the show out of its narrow niche and give it the universal appeal of a latter-day Fiddler on the Roof.."

Said Time Out New York, "The best that can be said about Soul Doctor, a strange Broadway musical based on the life and music of 'singing rabbi' Shlomo Carlebach, is that it isn't as bad as it sounds...The songs hold up well… But the show digs shallowly into its central character and his beliefs, and often rings false. The real Carlebach was a complex, fascinating man, with flaws as well as melodies...Reverent to a fault, Soul Doctor bleaches a story that cries out for tie-dye."

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The Public Theater has, in recent years, toyed with the idea of splitting the Delacorte Theater summer season in two, one half given over to the traditional Shakespeare, the other to a musical revival. Sometimes this has worked very well (Hair, which transferred to Broadway and won a Tony). Sometimes it has not (Into the Woods).

This year, the Public decided to offer a new product: the world premiere (how many of those has the Delacorte seen?) of the musical Love's Labour's Lost, penned by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson collaborators Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, and based on the Shakespeare comedy of that name. It officially opened Aug. 12.

Daniel Breaker, Kimiko Glenn and Patti Murin
photo by Joan Marcus
The critics responded with reviews that, even when they were intended as positive, came off as qualified. The New York Times called it a "woozy frolic," saying, "In this production, there is seldom a real connection between the singers and their songs. It's as if the musical numbers, which cover a gamut of pastiche styles, had been assigned at random from a mixtape playlist… As a silly diversion for the silly season, it passes muster, but only just."

New York magazine said the show "turns out to have the makings of a fine rompy musical. Alex Timbers and Michael Freidman may not have reached that goal quite yet, let alone anything loftier, but by reveling in the original's almost revue-like nature instead of trying to fix it, and by tailoring the story to a modern setting that suits it well, they have made opportunities out of the play's liabilities, and a delicious summer evening out of questionable ingredients."

Entertainment Weekly decreed that, "As with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Timbers and Friedman write like antic Ivy League parodists, kings of the Dramat, studding the Bard's narrative with pop culture references, meta-jokes, and sight gags that can occasionally seem more silly than apt." And USA Today offered that "Lost is propelled by sheer giddy energy. Luckily, that's enough to sustain this 100-minute offering, which is enhanced considerably by Timbers' nimble guidance of a winning young cast...So West Side Story it ain't. Lost's adroit goofiness — and a disarmingly sweet ending — still make it a pleasing midsummer night's diversion."

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Alex Timbers certainly likes his musicalized Shakespeare.

The man who just finished staging Love's Labour's Lost at the Delacorte is now hard at work on The Last Goodbye, a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, featuring songs by the late rocker Jeff Buckley. Conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmel, it will run at the Old Globe beginning Sept. 20. The cast features Jay Armstrong Johnson as Romeo and Talisa Friedman as Juliet.

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The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater began an ambitious undertaking called The Hilltown Plays Aug. 14

A five-play cycle featuring the work of Lucy Thurber, the collection of works tells the story of a woman who works her way into a new life from a childhood of poverty, alcoholism and abuse. Each play examines a pivotal stage of the character's life, spanning from a childhood in a poor mill town in Western Massachusettes through adulthood as a successful author. They investigate, say press material, "where we come from" — a recurring theme in Thurber's work.

The five plays are Scarcity, Ashville, Where We're Born, Killers and Other Family and Stay. Some of the dramas have seen life on the New York stage before; three (Where We're Born, Killers and Other Family and Stay) were staged at Rattlestick. To stage a five-play cycle, Rattlestick needs five stages. Those theatres, all clustered in the West Village, included Cherry Lane's main stage and studio space, the New Ohio Theatre, the Axis Theatre and, of course, Rattlestick.

The quintet of plays run through Sept. 28. 

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The Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is having a rough August. It was halted Aug. 15 after a cast member was injured during a performance of the elaborate musical. The actor was taken to the hospital where he is receiving medical attention. The FDNY reported that the actor was taken to Bellevue Hospital in serious condition.

Last week, the Aug. 6 performance was cancelled due to technical difficulties.