Unfortunately, the third time is not the charm for Soul Doctor, the well-intentioned but overly earnest and hagiographic bio-musical about the King of Kosher Music, rabbi and folksinger Shlomo Carlebach. The show was first performed here at New York Theatre Workshop in the summer of 2012, then moved to Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater the following year, when it was rechristened Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi, closing after thirty-two previews and sixty-six regular performances. This latest incarnation, Soul Doctor: The Musical Journey of Shlomo Carlebach, opened December 14 at the Actors Temple on West Forty-Seventh St., an actual working synagogue that has been visited over the years by many a Jewish comedian, from Jerry Lewis and Henny Youngman to Jack Benny and Joe E. Lewis. Although the relatively humorless story is essentially the same — Daniel S. Wise’s book follows Carlebach (Hayden Wall as a boy, Josh Nelson as an adult) from his youth in Vienna to his successful recording career in the United States and unusual friendship with Nina Simone (Dan’yelle Williamson) — it has been trimmed down from the NYTW’s 165 minutes to an intermissionless 95 minutes, but any nuance it had is gone, and the narrative is more straightforward than ever. Some of the most interesting and entertaining moments from the Broadway show, particularly Shlomo’s potential relationship with Ruth (Dianna Barger), are now barely in evidence, in favor of concentrating yet more on the religious aspects of Shlomo’s mission. “Only the words of the Torah will keep us alive!” he calls out to his brother, Eli Chaim (Jacob Heimer). Nelson, a popular modern Jewish performer, is bland as Shlomo, who is treated like a saint. (No mention is made of sexual abuse allegations against Carlebach, which is not surprising, given that his daughter, Neshama Carlebach, is part of the creative team, and producer and conceiver Jeremy Chess points out in the program that “the current work reflects the continued efforts to bring the music and message of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the public.”) Since the show takes place on the shul’s bimah, there is not much in the way of set design; instead, Brad Peterson’s projections effectively announce the changing scenes. All of the music is by Carlebach, along with some of the lyrics; additional lyrics are supplied by David Schechter. In my review of the Broadway production, which I enjoyed, I wrote that “you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the show”; however, this time around Soul Doctor is preaching to the choir.
Founded by four graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep acting and directing program, the Immediate Family follows up its 2013 Fringe production, Perceval, with another inventive, stripped-down version of a classic story, Peer Gynt. Adapted by Scott Raker from the English translation by William and Charles Archer, Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 “dramatic poem” has been condensed from the five-act, thirty-eight-scene original, which can run four or five hours, into ninety swift, intermissionless minutes by an engaging company whose charm and energy are contagious. Set in a small all-white studio at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory on West Fourteenth St., the tale of a young Norwegian lad with a rather creative imagination features no props, and most of the characters are dressed in white; Peer Gynt is played alternately by Jude Sandy, Lizzie King-Hall, and Raker, each donning Peer’s red vest when it is their turn to take the lead. Otherwise, they serve as a kind of Greek chorus while Gynt deals with his overbearing mother (Jessica Crandall), who is tired of being embarrassed by his lies; Ingrid (Rebecca Hirota), who wants to run away with him even though she is about to wed Mudd (David Jacobs); a green-clad troll princess (Hirota) whose father is the Mountain King (Rudi Utter); and Peer Gynt’s true love, the shy, guitar-carrying preacher’s daughter, Solveig (Brittannie Bond). But Peer Gynt, enamored with his dreams and the folktales he heard as a child, cannot settle down, preferring to go off on one adventure after another, some of them more reality-based than others.
Sandy, King-Hall, and Raker are simply splendid as Peer, their eyes wide with hope, smiles as big as a crescent moon. The cast enters and leaves through three white doors, sometimes huddling right behind the audience, which is seated on all four sides of the intimate horizontal space where the action takes place. Regen’s playful direction includes lovely choreography, from a wedding dance to the interaction between the three Peer Gynt portrayers to a spectacular bit of contemporary dance from the troll king’s daughter. In the far corner of the room, pianist Mackenzie Shivers plays original music inspired by Edvard Grieg’s familiar score, including variations on “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” accompanied by percussionist Michael Propster. The section when Peer Gynt leaves to become a successful businessman is nearly always problematic, and it is here as well, but the devilish Lean One (Khris Lewin) soon arrives to help bring the story, which is also about the very nature of storytelling itself, home to its inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, Peer Gynt is about self-realization and being true to oneself, and that all rings true in the Immediate Family’s charming adaptation.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 4, $25 through December 23, $55 after
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard continues his Legacy residency at the Signature Theatre with A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), a contemporary examination of the Oedipus myth first explored by Sophocles nearly twenty-five-hundred years ago. Presented with Brian Fiel and Stephen Rea’s Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, where the ninety-minute play premiered in the fall of 2013, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) mixes two primary story lines, one taking place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the other set in the California desert. In the former, gangster kingpin Lawrence/Laius (Aidan Redmond) receives a prophecy from Uncle Del (Lloyd Hutchinson) that “any child born to you and your lovely queen, Jocasta, will turn out to be your killer and the husband of his mother,” so he locks his wife (Brid Brennan) in a cage. Meanwhile, out in the Far West of America, highway patrol officer Harrington (Jason Kolotouros) and forensic investigator RJ Randolph (Matthew Rauch) are on the case of a triple murder that the wheelchair-bound Otto (Rea) is obsessed with. “None of it makes any sense! Are you kidding? This is just — this is just plain old slaughter — butchery. Like the old days,” Harrington says. “Old days?” Randolph asks. “Disemboweling — hearts torn out — drawn and quartered — heads rolling. Blood dripping down the altar steps,” Harrington replies. Randolph: “Oh — ancient then?” Harrington: “Ancient, yes, but —” Randolph: “Everything has a history, doesn’t it? I mean, this stuff didn’t come out of thin air.” Everything does have a history, which Shepard delves into as the two stories echo each other and merge, “draped in mystery and confusion,” as Oedipus (Rea) says.
Mystery and confusion abound in Shepard’s play, which reunites the two-time Tony nominee with longtime collaborators Rea (Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Kicking a Dead Horse) and director Nancy Meckler (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child), who have worked with one another on and off since the 1970s. The intersecting plots take place on Frank Conway’s clinically white-tiled set stained with blood, a clothesline of torn fabrics representing drying intestines in one corner, above which is an alcove where cellist Neil Martin and slide guitarist Todd Livingston contribute live music. It’s not always easy to know who is who and when is when as the story drags on, with several of the actors playing more than one role, occasionally addressing the audience directly, and the accents, American and Irish, eventually seem to intermingle. (Brennan plays Jocasta and Jocelyn, Judith Roddy plays Antigone and Annalee, Redmond plays Laius and Larry, and Hutchinson is Uncle Del, a traveler, Tiresias, and the Maniac of the Outskirts.) The Oscar-nominated Rea (The Crying Game) reveals the most depth as Oedipus, who is seeking revenge for a past wrong, and Otto, whose daughter, Annalee, is trying to protect her infant son, getting to the heart of Shepard’s own forensic investigation of fate and destiny, parents and children, and murder and duality, showing how little humanity has changed through the ages. It all makes for a rather uncomfortable experience. “Oh, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy / Piss on it / Piss on Sophocles’ head,” Annalee says. “What’s it for? Catharsis? Purging? Metaphor? What’s in it for us?” Despite some intense moments amid lofty ideals, A Particle of Dread leaves us to ponder such critical questions, about the play itself.
The Bushwick Starr
207 Starr St. between Wyckoff & Irving
December 18-20, $18, 8:00
Brooklynites Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies (Calypso) specialize in collaborating on literary performances featuring an experimental score and narrative. The latest work from writer Rome and composer and musician Menzies is Philadelphia and Other Stories, running December 18-20 at the Bushwick Starr. Part radio play, part performance art, part literary reading, Philadelphia and Other Stories is built around a New Year’s Eve road trip to the City of Brotherly Love, in addition to tales of skin rashes and romantic memories. The presentation is directed by Mark Jaynes, with Rome, Menzies, actress Katie Schottland, guitarist David Kammerer, and singer-songwriter Katie Mullins.
The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Monday, December 8, $75-$100, 8:00
In the fall of 2004, Keen Company presented a well-received revival of John Patrick’s 1945 play, The Hasty Heart, about soldiers in a temporary British hospital in South Asia near the end of WWII. In celebration of that production’s tenth anniversary and the troupe’s fifteenth — Keen was founded in 1999 with a mission to “create theater that provokes identification, reflection, and emotional connection . . . telling stories in which people strive to live with integrity” — they will be presenting a special reading of the play on December 8, reuniting most of the cast. Helmed by artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, the reading will take place at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row and will be performed by original cast members Stephen Bradbury, Emily Donahoe, Lucas Hall, Anthony Manna, Keith Nobbs, Brian Sgambati, and Paul Swinnerton along with newcomers Jimonn Cole and Bill Heck. Patrick went on to win a Pulitzer for his 1953 play, Teahouse of the August Moon, and wrote such screenplays as High Society, The World of Suzie Wong, and Some Came Running; The Hasty Heart was also made into a 1949 film starring Ronald Reagan, Patricia Neal, and Richard Todd.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 4, $49 - $145
Oscar-winning writer-director Bill Condon makes a rousing Broadway debut with Side Show, a wonderful revival of the Tony-nominated 1997 musical about real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. In Depression-era Texas, the daring, outgoing Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the shy, reserved Violet (Erin Davie) are the stars of a freak show run by a controlling ringmaster they call Sir (Robert Joy), who considers them his daughters while also overseeing the rest of his wild menagerie, which includes the 3 Legged Man (Brandon Bieber), the Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), Venus di Milo (Lauren Elder), Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio), Reptile Man (Don Richard), the Half Man/ Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh), the Bearded Lady (Blair Ross), the Fortune Teller (Charity Angel Dawson), and the small Cossack Male (Josh Walker) and Cossack Woman (Jordanna James). When talent agent Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) sees the twins, who are joined at the hip, he instantly visualizes them becoming stars on the vaudeville circuit. He has his partner, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), teach them song-and-dance routines, but when they’re at last ready and willing to leave the side show, the dastardly Sir stands in their way, and a thrilling tabloid-tale court battle ensues, also involving Sir’s right-hand man, Jake (David St. Louis), who serves as the twins’ protector. After the court’s decision, Buddy is soon falling for Violet, who Jake also deeply admires, while Daisy sets her sights on Terry. The romantic pentagon comes to a climax at an extravagant New Year’s Eve celebration that has the talented twins wondering if they might just be better off living separately, risking all on a potentially deadly operation.
Padgett (Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde) and Davie (Grey Gardens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) are terrific as Daisy and Violet, respectively, beautifully displaying the characters’ emotional hopes and fears as a new world opens up to them that threatens their unique relationship. Joy (The Nerd, Hay Fever) is deliciously dastardly as Sir, while Silverman (Passion) and Hydzik (West Side Story) make a fine duo, the former full of smooth-talking charm, the latter sweet melancholy. St. Louis (Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar) brings down the house early on with a powerful rendition of “The Devil You Know” that shakes the rafters. Bill Russell’s lyrics and Henry Krieger’s (Dreamgirls, The Tap Dance Kid) music flow nearly imperceptibly from the exemplary book, which was written by Russell with new material by Condon, wisely never overdoing the idea that’s it’s okay to be different. The score, which contains additions and subtractions from the original production, features such moving numbers as “Cut Them Apart / I Will Never Leave You,” “Stuck with You / Leave Me Alone,” and the gorgeous “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” while such words as “connected,” “ties,” “bind,” “join,” “glue,” etc., become sly nods to the conjoined-twins aspect of the tale. David Rockwell’s eye-catching set has a sweet Gothic touch, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes, from the Hilton sisters’ gowns to the freaks’ general appearance, are simply fab. Condon and choreographer Anthony Van Laast do a marvelous job of keeping the twins together through most of the show, except for one breathtaking, memorable moment. If you want to find out more about the Hilton sisters after seeing the show, seek out Leslie Zemeckis’s 2012 documentary, Bound by Flesh, which includes plenty of archival photographs and film footage.