So who was Shlomo Carlebach you ask? He was a rabbi who came from a long line of rabbis, his family forced out of Austria when the Nazis invaded. His father brought the family to New York where he took a position as the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on West 79th Street.
After meeting, and being inspired by Nina Simone, the younger Carlebach began writing music in the 1950s as a way to reach younger Jews who had left the fold. He was part of a movement called the Baal teshuva movement, or returnees to Judaism. His music was based on the Siddur (the Jewish prayer book) and the Tanakh (Jewish writings that include the Torah). Many traditional Jews (including his parents) were mortified that he would take these sacred works and desecrate them by setting them to music with a contemporary sound. To others, his change to the role of evangelist was a great disappointment. He had been considered a great Talmudic scholar.
The musical picks up with the Carlebach family being forced out of Austria by the Nazis. It follows young Shlomo as he grows from a discontented restless young Jew who finds that going to Shul brings him down. After happening into a black nightclub and where he meets Simone (Amber Iman), Carlebach gets inspired to reach out to other disaffected young Jews through music, ultimately founding his own synagogue, House of Love and Prayer in northern California.
Carlebach’s music is hummable and enjoyable. David Schechter is given credit for lyrics, with Carlebach receiving an "additional lyrics" credit. It’s all very positive with an uplifting message of love. It’s not hard to see Shlomo’s appeal. That said, the evening lumbers as the story of his life unfolds. Sadly it doesn’t challenge the audience in any way. Its appeal is in its sentimentality to a very specific audience. The book by Daniel S. Wise (who also directed) has a borscht-belt sense of humor to it. Shlomo’s mother to his father, “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to live under a dictator.” Shlomo’s father to his mother, “How could I forget, Darling... I’ve been married forty eight years.”
Eric Anderson is passionate and gentle as Carlebach. He has a pleasant and competent singing voice. His performance is fairly consistent, however, when we first see him at his House of Love and Prayer in the second act, Anderson goes momentarily into George Carlin's Hippy Dippy Weatherman. He seems to find his way back to center soon enough. Anderson was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for this role when the show appeared off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop.
It appears from this production that Carlebach was instrumental in helping Simone to propel her career forward. Iman’s performance doesn’t try to replicate Simone exactly. Her voice does have a similar texture. When Anderson and Iman sing together during “Ki Va Moed,” they blend so seamlessly that you can’t discern where one voice ends and the other begins. It is a lovely sound.
Shlomo’s mother and rabbi father are convincingly played by Jacqueline Antaramian and Jamie Jackson. Other performances of note include Zarah Mahler as Ruth, Shlomo’s love interest. Mahler has a beautiful voice, on display in the soaring “I Was a Sparrow.” Michael Paternostro plays Moisheleh, a man who appears to be a crazy street urchin who sings “Good Shabbos. Paternostro brings great joy to the carefree Moisheleh.
Stephen Gabis is listed in the Playbill as the Dialect Consultant. There are many instances when actor’s dialects feel forced and uncomfortable, particularly when it comes to the boy playing young Shlomo, Teddy Walsh. Walsh is an eager young actor who could have done with some tempering by director, Wise.
Ironically, for all the show’s continued insistence on men and women congregating separately, they have a women playing Jewish man.
As the evening drew to a close I noticed a group of Yeshiva students across the audience all with their arms raised, holding hands and swaying to the tunes of Rabbi Carlebach. While there is certainly an audience for this show, it’s just not compelling theatre.