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Theater Review: “Soul Doctor”

“Soul Doctor” plays through April 22, 2018, at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.
Photo credit:
Ken Jacques Photography

Orthodox rabbis often raise their sons in the hope that at least one will enter the rabbinate.

But “Rock Star Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach’s parents didn’t expect to find their son ministering to a mixed group of San Francisco’s hippies, drug addicts and flower children and singing songs like “Lord, Get Me High.”

But these are the ’60s and Shlomo has, he says, “found a different way.”

Shlomo is real, but his fictionalized story is told in the musical “Soul Doctor,” running through April 22 at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre. It’s a sort of a Jewish “Hair,” complete with protesters, songs and strange dances.

After that hippie intro, we go back to the beginning. Shlomo (Josh Young) was born in Germany and raised in Vienna, where his dad (Martin Rayner) was chief rabbi. They lived there happily until 1933, when they moved to Switzerland. In 1938, Nazi pogroms got a little too close and Shlomo’s family emigrated, ending up in the U.S.

Shlomo studied Torah and guitar in Brooklyn, writing many simple but often catchy melodies that he used in concert halls, coffee houses and protest rallies. In 1966, he performed at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival.

Somewhere along the line, he met legendary jazz singer Nina Simone (Ester Roda), and they became friends.

He continued using music as his instrument, teaching and singing about peace and love rather than rules and obligations. In 1968, he opened the House of Love and Prayer (HLP), a synagogue (or a Jewish center, or a commune, depending on what you read) in the Haight-Ashbury district.

I think the above is correct. I gathered it from sources other than the script of “Soul Doctor,” which is chaotically written (by Daniel S. Wise), confusing and curiously fact-averse.

There is a lot of music in this show – probably too much, since the two-and-a- half-hour runtime is way too long for what the story seems to be. And also because, while some of it is touching and almost all of it is jaunty, after a while it starts to sound the same.

Young is a fine singing actor, his Shlomo an appealing religious figure (rare enough in itself) as well as a personable character. The quality of his voice and interpretation are a few of the reasons he was Tony-nominated for his Broadway portrayal of Judas in Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and those qualities are on display here as well.

Ester Roda is likewise excellent as Nina Simone. In this production, she gets to sing one of my Simone favorites – “Mississippi Goddam” (“You don’t have to live next to me/Just give me my equality”) – before she goes off to join the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery protest march.

Local favorite Dylan Hoffinger returns to San Diego as Young Shlomo, demonstrating again the talent and sparkle that won him the local critics’ award as Outstanding Young Artist in 2012. And this kid can dance!

Martin Rayner is suitably stern and annoyed as Shlomo’s father, Mimi Bessette concerned and kindly as his mom.

Ginna Doyle acquits herself well as Ruth, a woman Shlomo seems to have an interest in until something unclear happens.

Rick Fox conducts (and plays in) the fine four-member “Holy Beggar Band.”

“Soul Doctor” played short runs on and off-Broadway. It has been changed and is now on tour. Unfortunately, it still needs to be shorter and better written.

The details

“Soul Doctor” plays through April 22, 2018, at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000