PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Soul Doctor — Shlomo in Slo-Mo

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16 Aug 2013

Eric Anderson
Eric Anderson
Photo by Monica Simoes

Jazzing up Judaism has always been a young man’s game, but anybody who tries it always seems to be following in the conflicted footsteps of Al Jolson’s "Jazz Singer," weaving between the straight-and-narrow of by-the-Torah traditionalism and the bright lights of show biz. Such was the crooked path pursued by Rabbi Sholomo Carlebach, whose Soul Doctor shingle went up Aug. 15 at Circle in the Square.

The musical reviewing his 69 years considerately draws from his wellspring of melodies — whether pop or rock or folk, all keyed to specific occasions and all attached to new lyrics by David Schechter to move the story along. That story, supplied by director Daniel S. Wise, already had a few miles on it by the time Jolson said, 'You ain't heard nothin' yet," telling the time-honored tale of a young man torn by his faith and his talent. In the specific and well-documented case of Carlebach, he used his musical gifts to spruce up Jewish liturgy, making it accessible to the young.

By the time he was through, his synagogue was a house of love on Haight Street — The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district — where he ministered to the pot-smoking hippie set and further inflamed the old-guard traditionalists. A true musical pioneer, he moved away from traditional Orthodox yeshivot and created the sound that accompanies most modern synagogue services.

His was a life full of incident, and Wise's book seems to tag most of them, moving in first and second gear from Nazi-occupied Vienna to New York City relocation to growing discontent with dry Jewish dogma to writing his own musical ticket.

Eric Anderson originated the role of Shlomo in a New York Theatre Workshop production last August (and, before that, in a lift-off premiere in Florida), playing the role pretty much on the back-burner, rather passively revolutionizing Jewish music. His is an amiable presence, and he takes his journey at a leisurely, unpushy pace. What snaps the show startlingly to life is an accidental, totally uncharted encounter with Nina Simone in the wee-small-hours at a New Jersey jazz joint. The collision of the Rock-Star Rabbi and the High Priestess of Soul, according to this musical bio, produced a new sound that revitalized both of their careers. The depth of their fusion remains to be seen in this production; both moved on to other marriages.

A product of one of those marriages, Neshama Carlebach, took to the stage immediately after the show and delivered one of her daddy’s diddies ("David Melech"). She was presented as "a special opening-night treat," but, truth to tell (which she told later at the after-party), she may become a recurring occurrence. If she seems a tad over-rehearsed for this particular gig, that’s because she took up her father’s musical touring a month after his death, and that was almost 20 years ago.

The opening-night party was held at the Liberty Theater on 42nd Street, and the spread was kosher, of course. The list of first-nighters was short of famous faces, but those who did drop by were abundantly aware of the person being celebrated.


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