“Have you ever stood outside a picket fence? You could see through, but you can’t get to the inside.”
Yes. That’s a Hanson lyric. And no, I’m not just quoting it because I love Hanson–though I do–I’m also quoting it because it’s a very accurate description of what I felt like when seeing Soul Doctor, the musical about influential Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which opened last week at the Circle in the Square Theater.
I am, as you may have guessed by a nickname like The Mick, an Irish kid raised entirely in the Catholic faith. And though growing up on Long Island gave me what I thought was a lot of exposure to the Jewish faith, I was not, in any way I could recall, familiar with Rabbi Carlebach’s music when I entered the theater. Sadly, though Soul Doctor gave me a cursory glance at his life, a chance to peek through the slats of the fence, as it were, I never felt as if the story reached out and pulled me completely into its world.
Of course, trite, overly-obvious lyrics by David Schechter–Carlebach’s original lyrics were mostly disposed of for the stage show–did nothing to improve the distant, paint-by-numbers quality of the show, nor did the inadequate size of the cast. I understand staging a musical is expensive, but seriously, the frequency with which female actresses were costumed as men for any number of the show’s over-choreographed company scenes was distracting. Throw in the cast’s frequent forays out into the audience and Director David Wise’s entire show ultimately gave the impression of a cleaned up, Hebrew Hair. (Subtract an acid trip, add a detour through the Yeshiva.)
However, unlike Hair, Soul Doctor did not tell a tightly focused story and that was, perhaps, the show’s biggest problem. With material spanning around 40 years–beginning with Carlebach’s childhood in Holocaust besieged Vienna and ending with his return to perform there in the early 70s–Soul Doctor felt like a staged greatest hits album, leaping from important moment to important moment without taking the time to develop the deeper human resonance of each story as it related to the audience.
In addition, I found it alienating to be surrounded by people so familiar with Rabbi Carlebach’s music–of which I knew note a single note–that they were completely unable to keep from humming and singing along aloud. This disconnect served only to underscore my distance from the material.
Actually, it was that very element of the Soul Doctor experience that brought Hanson to mind. As a diehard Hanson fan–someone who knows ever melody they’ve composed inside and out, and who marks many of the most important events in her life by the Hanson songs that were playing at the time–I imagine my experience of Soul Doctor is a lot like what friends and family might feel like at a poorly written jukebox musical about Hanson’s life and career. And despite strong, sensitive, well realized performances by Eric Anderson (as Shlomo Carlebach) and Amber Iman (as Nina Simone) and a few touching scenes–in particular, a scene where the pair bond over their different people’s shared heritage of mistreatment–Soul Doctor never became more than a hodge-podge of musical numbers that everyone but me had heard before.
Photo: Provided by the Production