Most singers who use religion to connect with others write music that appeals to people with similar beliefs. A good example is Shlomo Carlebach, an Orthodox Jewish singer/composer/lyricist with the nickname “the Singing Rabbi.”
The touring production of the musical Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rock-Star Rabbi, from Shlomo Tours, LLC, tells the story of Shlomo’s rise as an inspirational artist.
After the Nazi rise to power in Vienna, a young Shlomo (Dylan Hoffinger), his father (Martin Rayner) and mother (Mimi Bessette), escape the city and eventually find a decent apartment in Manhattan. Much to the irritation of his dad, an adult Shlomo (John Young) dreams of becoming a successful singer.
Once Shlomo meets the then-unknown singer/pianist Nina Simone (Ester Rada) at a Greenwich Village nightclub, his passion for singing continues to grow.
To say that Shlomo’s life is an interesting one is an understatement. He achieved success and a following without having to compromise his beliefs or ideals.
Book writer Daniel S. Wise gets this point across multiple times throughout the script. While his dialogue features scenes that are funny and deeply emotional, his narrative does meander at times.
Although plenty of stories deserve a long runtime, this one does have sequences that seem too long. The first 30 minutes feel too much like a traditional biopic story that starts with a big incident and goes back in time to show what led to it. While plenty of shows and films find new ways to play with this idea, Soul Doctor doesn’t do enough to make the concept fresh.
Another part of the tale that could be tighter is Shlomo’s relationship with drug-addicted San Francisco citizens. These scenes in Act II, especially Schlomo’s relationship with an infatuated fan Ruth (Ginna Doyle), aren’t always as compelling to watch as his personal triumphs.
Despite having a lengthy runtime, there is still so much enjoyment to be had watching Soul Doctor, starting with Gabriel Barre’s direction. He uses every inch of the Lyceum Space stage to transport audiences to different places such as New York and
Edward Pierce’s set is primarily a theatrical depiction of a San Francisco synagogue, The House of Love and Prayer. His visual details, along with Jeff Croiter’s trippy lighting and Jen Caprio’s retro costumes, contribute to a very bohemian atmosphere.
A musical group, known as The Holy Beggar Band, act as supporting characters and play the score onstage. Conductor/pianist/keyboardist Rick Fox, guitarist Janet Robin and others soulfully perform songs like “Lord Get Me High,” “Ki Va Moed” and “Am Yisrael Chai” in a style that pays respects to both Jewish music and the time period.
Jennifer Paulson-Lee’s choreography pays tribute to Jewish traditions and dancing from the “decade of peace, love and harmony.”
Young, who plays the guitar skillfully, acts and sings with earnest pathos that perfectly fits the role of Shlomo.
His scenes with Rada (who also has a powerful singing voice) are the most interesting and entertaining. While sharing a meaningful friendship, Shlomo and Nina did not have a romantic affair.
Both Young and Rada show how tragedies and struggles didn’t keep Shlomo and Nina from creating unforgettable music.
Ensemble members such as Hoffinger, Rayner and Luke Wygodny who leaves an impact as a Jew, Mosheleh, who knew a young Shlomo, are given a couple of poignant moments and songs in the production at Horton Plaza.
Even with references to drugs and the Holocaust, Soul Doctor is a family friendly musical with positive themes for kids and adults. Shlomo is depicted as such a loving, understanding and compassionate man that theatregoers can’t help but be moved by his actions.
It is worth pointing out here that there is some controversy swirling around about allegations of sexual abuse made by some women following Arlebach’s death in 1994. These were made in interviews for Lilith, an “Independent, Jewish, and Frankly Feminist” magazine. Wise does not address these in the narrative.
There’s no denying that Soul Doctor is a sincere and warm tribute to an unconventional rabbi. You’ll leave the theatre uplifted by the joyous music that Shlomo created.