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“Soul Doctor” suffers from other difficulties stemming from the life of its subject. Even though the musical casts Carlebach’s struggle as the fulfillment of personal spiritual destiny at the cost of family and community ties, the story isn’t simply about a son’s break with his father’s religion. The drama of Carlebach’s life was about inter-Jewish controversy, not a departure from Judaism à la “The Jazz Singer.” Unfortunately, that’s hard to translate into a general-interest musical. Why should a non-Jewish audience care that boring synagogue services are alienating the younger generation and need to be reinvigorated? Or why should a Jewish audience member, who is attending a musical rather than synagogue on Saturday (as I was), care either? It’s not clear why the substance of Carlebach’s rebellion was all that important, except to him.
It also doesn’t help that at two-and-a-half hours, “Soul Doctor” is overly long, or that it combines questions about post-Holocaust forgiveness and black-Jewish relations with the theme of religious conflict. Such weaknesses are partly overcome by top-notch performances — Eric Anderson’s impersonation of Carlebach is accurate to the level of vocal and physical mannerism, and Amber Iman is equally captivating as Simone, with whom Carlebach was apparently acquainted. But the problem with “Soul Doctor” is more fundamental: For all of Carlebach’s influence, his mission to repair the spiritual health of the Jewish people is not really suited to a Broadway show.
But then there’s the music. At the end of the first act, Carlebach is in the recording studio, laying down tracks for his first album. Lacking familiarity with professional recording techniques, he cannot seem to transfer his exuberant approach to vinyl. His manager is about to give up, when he has an epiphany. The problem is that, as Carlebach has been complaining, he can’t hear his own voice. Not literally, but figuratively: His spirit is being smothered by the slick studio-band accompaniment. To solve this dilemma, the manager instructs Carlebach to start singing first and the musicians to come in only when they “can’t help it anymore.” The idea works, and Carlebach enfolds the band, the producer, and the entire audience into an ecstatic song.
Here, “Soul Doctor” successfully conveys its real inspiration: the euphoric effect that Carlebach had through his music, and the reason his melodies are ubiquitous today. The full meaning of his legacy may never be resolved, on Broadway or elsewhere. But at synagogue services and campfire sing-a-longs, Hebrew school assemblies and now on theater stages, Shlomo Carlebach will be with us for a while.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG