NEW YORK—Based on the actual life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, this musical takes us from Carlebach’s beginnings in Vienna, from where his family fled from Hitler’s incursions to his early life in New York, thence to an amazing turn of events, which brought him to the forefront of the countercultural musical revolution in the ’60s.
As a young man, Shlomo (Eric Anderson) champed at the bit of the Orthodox Judaism to which he was bound, and ultimately his ongoing conflicts with the elders of the synagogue led him to stray.
Musically talented, he gravitated to the forbidden territory of a “smoky piano bar” (so described in the program notes), where he met jazz singer great Nina Simone (Amber Iman), who was as yet unsuccessful.
In a complex and moving scene, the two outsiders form a powerful bond. They encourage each other in their individual pursuits, even developing a romantic interest in each other, although this last-named element is not pursued in the script.
However, the onstage relationship gives license for some terrific performances by the two stars. Iman not only socks her renditions to the rafters, but exudes a powerful stage personality and loads of charisma.
The same can be said for Eric Anderson, whose initially restrained style develops before our eyes into an irresistible force, as he lends emphasis to his renditions by enthusiastically jumping repeatedly and rhythmically during his numbers. During the performance I saw, these two performers completely won over the audience.
With music written by Shlomo Carlebach, additional material by his daughter Neshama Carlebach, lyrics by David Schechter, and book and libretto by Daniel S. Wise, who also directed, the 40-some songs are tuneful and vibrant. Some contain vivid klezmer-like elements, which made it infectious to my ears at any rate.
Song titles such as “Rosh Hashanah Rock,” sung by Shlomo and students at Columbia University, “Show Me the Way,” sung by Shlomo at a storefront gospel church to which Nina had invited him, “Sing Shalom,” sung by Shlomo and others at the 1966 Berkeley Folk Festival (appearing along with Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary, where he made his first strong impression on the rock scene), and “Prodigal Son,” sung by Shlomo at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, may give a sense of the show’s ambiance.
Numerous dance numbers interspersed throughout, choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, benefit from a strong group of dancers. However, some of the numbers seemed gratuitous, arguably contributing to the production’s lengthiness rather than to its potency.
I did not see the original off-Broadway production last year at New York Theatre Workshop, where some criticized its length (it still runs 2 hours, 40 minutes). Some perceived a lack in the book’s structure, and I have no way of knowing if rewrites were done.
However, Broadway’s Circle in the Square may be this production’s ideal location. The large, comfortably raked house (much like an amphitheater) invites audience participation, and the performance I saw witnessed numerous bursts of enthusiastic, rhythmic handclapping by the audience accompanying many of the numbers.
At such times the effect was mesmerizing, like a revival meeting. We were all a part of it. Going back to theater since the days of the Greeks, isn’t being a part of it what most of us long for in a theatrical experience?
Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W. 50th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
[i]Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information visit firstname.lastname@example.org. [/i]