“Soul Doctor” at Circle in the Square (Closed October 13, 2013)

August 16, 2013 | Broadway | Tags:
Music and Additional Lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach
Book by Daniel S. Wise
Lyrics by David Schechter
Directed by Daniel S. Wise
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love/It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”
(Hal David/Burt Bacharach, 1965)

Affirming that the world needed love in 1965 and continues to need love in the twenty-first century is a lovely thought and a fitting mantra for a world mired in ennui and daily teetering on the brink of global conflict. However, what the world has always needed is a qualified purveyor of love: the world needs someone who not only appreciates what love is but also apprehends how to share love in non-judgmental, unconditional, and prodigal ways. What the world needs is a love doctor, a soul doctor.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was such a practitioner of love from his childhood in Nazi Germany until his death in 1994. The new Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” now playing at Circle in the Square chronicles the courageous life and auspicious ministry of this remarkable troubadour of agapic love. “Soul Doctor” is a flashback from Carlebach’s (Eric Anderson) appearance at a concert in Vienna City Square in 1972 through his boyhood in Vienna, his escape to Brooklyn from Nazi Germany with his family, his introduction to the Chassidim, his auspicious meeting with Nina Simone (Amber Iman), his ministry in New York City and California, his visit to Jerusalem and back to the beginning of the musical.

Throughout his life, Reb Shlomo proclaimed a “love without limit” and through his songs hoped to reach out to as many people – especially the young – as he could in unconventional yet convincing ways. Under Daniel S. Wise’s spirited direction, “Soul Doctor’s” energetic and brilliant ensemble cast enlivens Carlebach’s songs and transforms them into songs for the ages – “songs coming from above filling all the world with music and love.”

Neil Patel’s multi-purpose set easily transitions time and space and with Jeff Croiter’s sumptuous lighting creates the appropriate mood for every scene of the musical. Maggie Morgan’s costumes are exquisite and honor each period of action with dignity and refinement. Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s choreography encapsulates yet transcends tradition and brings the action into the audience whenever possible.

The plot of “Soul Doctor” is very thin if one even exists. It is rather a chronological circle of life-altering events that end where it all began, all for the sake of healing, whether oneself or others. The autobiographical stream of events is interesting but does not necessarily create a wave that forces the action into the next scene. The book may be informative about the life and career of Schlomo Carlebach but the character delineation and exposure is weak, providing no emotional connection for the audience.

What proves to be the soul of this production is Carlebach’s music which seems to be fittingly the healing force of the doctor. Eric Anderson successfully uses his clear, strong vocal quality to celebrate life’s ever changing emotional raptures as he attempts to heal the lost, confused and searching souls of his faith. Amber Iam captures a freedom in her vocals that is the essence of her character, Nina Simone. Her scene with Schlomo in the smoky piano bar where they first meet is endearing, heartbreaking and uplifting and her vocals are divine. The two hour and thirty five minute production is long but moves at a quick pace and supplies a good evening of entertainment.