“Montreal Jewgrass” musician Adam Stotland channeled one of his musical gods since childhood – Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – in his acting debut last month.
Stotland, who has Vancouver family connections, landed the title role in the musical Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi, which made its world première in Yiddish at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal, with a June 8-29 run.
Stotland, 37, is not a rabbi or exactly a rock star, but he is a cantor and singer-guitarist known for his brand of music that blends klezmer and other Jewish folk music with the sounds of bluegrass. He is a huge fan of Carlebach, the charismatic, yet controversial, voice of the Jewish revival movement of the 1950s through ’70s. But, as Stotland pointed out to the Segal team when they invited him to audition, he had never acted before – and didn’t know Yiddish.
He also wasn’t sure if he could find the time between his duties as cantor, for the past two years, at Shaare Zion Congregation and his busy performing schedule. He and his wife also have a young child and are expecting another.
Besides, as always, the actors and singers in Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre productions are highly talented, but unpaid.
But the Segal insisted he would be ideal.
Stotland headed a cast of 30, which included Mark Bassel, Aron Gonshor, Burney Lieberman and Sam Stein. Co-directors were Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of New York’s Folksbiene Theatre, who convinced the Segal they had to do this show, and Rachelle Glait.
Written by Daniel S. Wise with lyrics by David Shechter, Soul Doctor had its Broadway debut in English last summer. It was hailed by the New York Times as “a joyous, leaping roar” and “unabashedly celebratory show.” The Montreal show featured English and French supertitles.
More than 30 of Carlebach’s greatest hits over his 40-year career are featured, backed by a live band. “He had the ability to compose simple tunes that touched you,” Stotland said.
There is a storyline, and Stotland spent “hours and hours” learning the dialogue. His knowledge of Yiddish had been limited to a few affectionate and sometimes colorful phrases he knew from his bubbie. “Having a musical ear, however, has helped me get the meter, the lilting melody of the language,” he said.
Soul Doctor recounts Carlebach’s life from his childhood escape from Nazi Germany and his early rabbinical career, to his discovery of gospel and soul music after meeting acclaimed jazz singer Nina Simone in 1957. An unlikely collaboration and friendship blossomed from there.
He moved away from his strict Orthodox upbringing, but brought the Chassidic love of song to mainstream Jews. He developed a signature sound that combined folk, pop and soul with traditional Jewish music and liturgy, and his popularity grew well beyond Jewish fans. He performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
But stardom had its price and Carlebach, who died 20 years ago, struggled with personal demons that strained his family life and shook his faith.
“The music and journey of Rabbi Carlebach is one that will resonate strongly with our community,” said Wasserman prior to the opening, adding that the production “captures the spiritual essence of his songwriting.”
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