Tour Theater Review: SOUL DOCTOR (Lyceum Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 15, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


There is an ancient Chinese proverb: “The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher.” In the musical Soul Doctor, the Jewish Orthodoxy apparently aren’t big on such Chinese wisdom. Based on the true story of Shlomo Carlebach, often known as “The Singing Rabbi,” Shlomo (Josh Young) is torn between two opposing forces: a culture of centuries-old tradition which he cherishes and the reality that the next generation is leaving the temple because they aren’t buying into it, at least not in its current form.

Much has been made in the news of Catholics pulling away from the Church for digging its heels in about divorce, abortion, female priests, and protecting priests from scandal, but fewer are aware of the great changes in Judaism in the past seven decades. As the Jewish people see themselves as less separate from the general population, the distinctions that once set them apart are losing favor. The fear of many Jews is that, for all the persecution, Crusades, and holocausts of the last thousand years, it is now intermarriage, assimilation, and lost interest that may be the end of the Jewish culture.

Shlomo cannot bear to see the joys of learning the Torah and Talmud lost just because the traditions surrounding them will not adapt. Why can’t the blessed words be shared in a melodious tune? Why wouldn’t Judaism want to embrace the power that Shlomo sees in the gospel mirth of the church around the corner? What if these changes to synagogue lit a fire under the next generation and restored their love for Jewish prayer? This all seems so simple to Shlomo while it is a dagger to the heart of his family and congregation.

Most of the script takes place in the mid-1960s in New York and San Francisco, with flashbacks to his teen years in Vienna under the Nazi occupation. Sometime around 1965, after a struggle with his cantor (the temple singer), Shlomo dares go into a place that is scandalous for a respected rabbi: a nightclub. There, he is mesmerized by African-American jazz crooner Nina Simone, who would go on to become an important folk singer for civil equality.

Initially, Nina (Ester Rada) is put off by the fact that Shlomo balks at even shaking her hand, thinking this is racism, but as the two talk, she comes to understand that his religious beliefs do not permit him to touch her because she is female, not black. As the two talk, they uncover a truth that has sadly been lost on the world at large: The Jewish and Black people have far more in common than most are aware of. With this newly shared knowledge and friendship, Nina’s influence changes his outlook. Can he accept change himself while showing others how to adapt — without losing the core joy of celebrating God’s word with veracity?

All of this sounds very heavy, but while Daniel S. Wise’s book nourishes a poignant message, the story and music are exuberant and joyful. Audiences are encouraged (and willing) to sing along to the melodies that made Carlebach a minor star with a loyal following. Mr. Young’s rich and vibrant voice certainly aids in our energetic celebration of lyrics coming from Carlebach, the Bible, and David Schecthter. With due respect to the famous Ms. Simone, Ms. Rada’s powerful delivery is arguably more melodic than that of the original singer. Add Jennifer Paulson-Lee’s captivating choreography, and this is a show that educates, entertains, and lifts the spirit. For anyone who has ever held to old ways of thinking, especially those of Jewish faith and/or heritage, Soul Doctor should be a source of much to discuss afterward.

photos by Ken Jacques

Soul Doctor
Stellation Entertainment
Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza
Tues, Wed Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7:30
ends in San Diego on April 22, 2018
for tickets, call 619.544.1000 or visit SD Rep
on tour through 2019
for tickets, visit Soul Doctor

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