PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Soul Doctor — Shlomo in Slo-Mo
By Harry Haun
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.
Song-writing legend Carole King showed up, presumably to see what it would be like to be saluted with a Broadway musical. (Hers, Beautiful, goes into previews Sept. 24 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco and will get to Broadway by year's end.) Also, in related developments, King's grandson is in the band.
Fyvush Finkel, 90, was thoroughly familiar with the evening’s music. "And how!" he exclaimed. "Shlomo and I were in the same show. What he would do would be to take the Scriptures and set them to his own music. He had a great sense of melody.
"And this new guy, Eric Anderson, is marvelous, a better performer than Shlomo."
Not only was Tovah Feldshuh familiar with the Carlebach catalog, she was offered the part of his mother in the show. (The former Golda Meir graciously declined.)
"Yes, I was very familiar with his music, though I wasn’t at his synagogue," the actress admitted. "He played a very important part in bringing the sheer joy of music and Judaism to a whole generation. It was like Jewish Hair, y'know — very melodic, very simple, very catchy. Everybody could sing it. His melodies have infused all sorts of services, from every movement in Judaism — whether it's reform, conservative, reconstructionist or modern Orthodox. It’s all over the place."
Feldshuh had to come down to earth to make it to the theatre. She's currently filling in for Andrea Martin as Pippin’s high-flying granny, Bertha. The high-wire action doesn’t make her nervous, she insisted. "I'm on that trapeze, starting Tuesday, for eight more shows. It's been an extraordinary experience. I've been in hits but nothing like this. I really regard this as a high point in my career, even this four-week visit to the show." Will she be back? "I've been sworn to secrecy." Translation: Yes.
Amber Iman, who makes her Broadway debut as Nina Simone, was the last to arrive in this production. "A few months ago, I stumbled upon it on YouTube when they were in Florida," she recalled. "Just looking at it — seeing those few clips online — I thought, 'That's an excellent piece. I'd love to see it.'" Snooping around more about the show, she stumbled again — into an audition — and got the part.
"I have been a Nina fan as long as I can remember, and I thought I knew her, but doing this show has opened my eyes and my ears to so much more of Nina that I had no idea existed. She was the voice of the civil rights movement and the black pride movement. She wanted to lift people up, to bring them together — and she was just so outspoken. She didn’t care what anybody said or thought about her. She had a mission and a purpose in life — and to hear that in her music is magical.
One of the big backstage battles for this show was over letting Anderson have the show’s only solo curtain call — which meant, as late as the previews, Iman was sharing her curtain call (awkwardly, to say the least!) with Zarah Mahler, who plays a composite version of the two Mrs. Carlebaches. Happily, reason reigned. If Iman's glamorous get-up (a rich red satin gown, crowned with a turban of gold lame) didn’t cry out for its own solo bow, her performance certainly did.
Like Anderson, Jamie Jackson, who plays his rabbi father, sports a mass of unruly hair onstage but turns out to be totally bald offstage. "I always find it's a great challenge for an actor to step out of your normal, everyday experiences and to step into something you're not familiar with," said Jackson, a non-Jew from Down Under. "Being a rabbi has been a real challenge to me as an actor, and I've really enjoyed it.
"The accent is a great way in, and, of course, the costume helps an enormous amount when you have to inhabit that world and become that person. It takes a lot of time in front of an audience, I find, too — to feel legitimate in the role. The details start to come, and more and more physicality. It's like trying on a suit after a while. You start to know how to move, how to speak, how to look at the world through those eyes."
More honestly hirsute than the onstage Carlebaches is Ron Orbach, who plays the perpetual thorn-in-their-sides, Reb Pinchas, "a holy heckler." He confessed the show surprised him a little: "I love that it has so much heart. If people are responding to that, I'm honestly a bit surprised by it. You don't do a show and expect people are going to be clapping along every song — but that's what's happening. I don’t get it, really. Some of it comes from Shlomo fans, who, I think, are used to that. That's part of the way it went at his concerts so they think that's what it’s going to be and they get right into it — and the rest of the audience seems to want to come along."
Another Broadway bow was racked up by choreographer Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who didn’t try to hide his excitement. "I'm over the moon. It's special, iconic. I'm from Paris, and I've been in America for 20 years. I respect Broadway so much, and here I am, choreographing a Broadway show. After almost ten years as artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, I thought it was time for me to challenge myself — time for me to open another door, and that door was Broadway."
Writer-director Wise thought the opening-night audience gave a good performance. "What I liked about every night is the audience. That's always my favorite part of the show. I would say a good portion of the audience is repeaters, and still they are laughing at the jokes and clapping along, celebrating the show. To me, that's a sign that we’ve reached our goals. We've brought this experience to a place that really is an embracing theatre — Circle in the Square. This show only got here because of the audiences. The investors always came from the audience. Most of our investors aren’t even Jewish, and the Jewish investors — most of them are secular. The audiences are loving it — they're having a great experience, and that's the most important thing. They'll telling their friends and coming back themselves."
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