'Soul Doctor' review: Rock-Star Rabbi

Eric Anderson in "Soul Doctor: Journey of a Eric Anderson in "Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi" at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

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REVIEW

Shlomo Carlebach may be the most charismatic guy you've never heard of. (If you have, bear with us.) The Brooklyn troubadour by way of Vienna tried to save the world by spreading God's word through what his Orthodox parents regarded as "devil's music."

His muse in this hippie-era quest was Nina Simone. Their unlikely friendship roughly fuses "Fiddler on the Roof" with "Hair" in "Soul Doctor," now raising a musical ruckus as directed by Daniel Wise -- with indulgence for his sprawling book.

In yeshivas like the one Shlomo's father establishes after the family fled the Nazis in 1938, it is forbidden for male and female students to mingle. Still, Shlomo ventures into the Village Gate, where men and women sit together shamelessly. A black woman with classical training plays jazz piano. She's the first woman unrelated to him to speak to Shlomo. It's 1963. No one's heard of Nina Simone yet. much less the "Rock Star Rabbi." Separately, but with mutual support, they rise to prominence and celebrity.

Eric Anderson as Shlomo and Amber Iman as Nina spiritedly lift "Soul Doctor" beyond Old and New Testament realms. Other riveting moments begin with the Jewish busker (Michael Paternostro) shot to death by a Nazi gendarme for singing in the street, and end with the first soul Shlomo saves, a Washington Square addict (a mellifluous Zarah Mahler) who sings her unrequited heart out.

Shlomo and Nina's first encounter is worth even the Broadway price of admission. Nina scolds him for saying he understands how she feels about racism. Shlomo tells of his people's annihilation. That leads to his first-ever hug with a woman -- mother excepted. A "scandalous" photo surfaces, exiling Shlomo to San Francisco, where he meets the Grateful Dead while establishing an unorthodox Orthodox Haight-Ashbury commune. His father (Jamie Jackson) disowns him. (Jacqueline Antaramian plays his sharp-tongue mother; Ryan Strand, his less-driven brother.)

Shlomo's return to Vienna at Simone's behest seals his pariah fate.

Neil Patel's Wailing Wall set moves us seamlessly to the jazz and hora beats of Seth Farber's orchestra and Benoit-Swan Pouffer's go-with-the-flow choreography; lyrics are by David Schechter and Carlebach, who died in 1994.

But what of Shlomo's personal life? There's no hint of his marriage. (His daughters carry on his legacy.) But we're most disappointed in the final tableaux -- phonier even than presidential candidates hugging after a primary slugfest. Zealots don't forgive perceived infidels. This is a biographical musical, not a Disney fantasy.


WHAT "Soul Doctor"

WHEN | WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway

TICKETS $39-$135; telecharge.com, 212-239-6200

BOTTOM LINE Peace, love and misunderstanding

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