Review: ‘A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill’ is charming, albeit disturbing
In 1994, the wife of a popular rabbi was murdered in her home in Cherry Hill, NJ. The case became a media sensation when it was discovered that the rabbi, who had an affair with a radio personality in Philadelphia, had paid to have his wife. killed.
Playwright and composer Matt Schatz, who once lived with his family in Cherry Hill, has written a cleverly sung musical about the crime. Your enjoyment of the show may depend on how well you manage to shield the true crime dimension of the story.
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill”, which has its world premiere at Geffen Playhouse in a charmingly unpretentious production directed by Mike Donahue, is a strangely twisted work considering that it is about a real mother who was killed inside her own home . .
The conceit is that we see an annual musical at the local Jewish community center about the crime. The urban population in this densely knitted Jewish enclave has come together in an amateur theatrical way to participate in a memorial ritual.
The show’s opening number begins with a question: “Why do we tell and remember? / Can’t we just forget? / Or even better / Pretend it never happened at all?”
One of the answers later in the musical is that “remember is what we do.” “We” here are the Jewish people, enduring through a turbulent history that includes the collective memory of ancestors who were marched to their graves.
Recreating this heinous crime is a way of processing the morally indescribable. Neighbors have gathered to think about the seriousness of the rabbi’s sin, the nature of evil, and the constant shock that a pillar of society could have been capable of such a murderous duality. Their own gullibility haunts them as much as anything else.
The office has come with its guitar. Musicians, dressed as if they have just run errands at the mall, are visible in Alexander Woodward’s auditorium. One by one, the characters remember where they were when they first heard the news of the murder.
The competition moves back in time to 1968, when the rabbi (played with runaway enthusiasm by Danny Rothman) first arrives at Cherry Hill to teach the teens. Handsome and athletic, he has an informal way of declaring a new kind of religious leader.
When asked what he should call him, he says “Peace.” After spending time in Israel, he returns to form the M’kor Shalom Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue. At this point, he wants to be called a rabbi, even though he maintains a strangely relaxed and at times seductive intimacy with his congregations.
This backstory is confusingly reproduced. The sudden changes in time are abrupt and sometimes difficult to track. Adding blur is the way cast members are asked to play multiple roles. This is common practice in the theater, but the characters an actor is asked to perform are not always clearly defined.
Jill Sobule, the prominent member of the ensemble, plays not only Cantor, but also the rabbi’s wife (without a name in the musical, but clearly based on aspects of the life story of Carol Neulander). Sobule is so distinctive in its usual Cherry Hill character that it took me a minute to find out that the rabbi was not actually married to the cantor.
The story of how the rabbi’s wife started the Cherry Hill Kosher Cake Company and developed the business into a thriving catering business is summarized in a wonderful little conversation text. But the musical, created in Geffen Playhouse’s first writers’ room program, rarely allows us to become thoroughly acquainted with any of the characters.
All we can say about this marriage is that neither husband nor wife was much at home. The rabbi’s affair with “The Lady on the Radio”, as she is designated in the program, is outlined a little more completely. But Zehra Fazal, who plays the newlywed widow, can only do so much to bring this radio personality into three-dimensional life.
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” seems strongly influenced by “Come From Away”. Both musicals introduce a cross-section of humanity, although “A Wicked Soul” is not as successful in sorting out its characters. The show uses its own indie folk music style to identify a community that is special. These Cherry Hill residents, located “10 miles outside of Philly”, “25 miles from Trenton” (as the characters singingly tell us in their version of “Welcome to the Rock” from “Come From Away”), are not separated by geographically, but by religious and cultural distance.
Schatz’s lyrics are full of dizzying puns. At times, the breadth becomes a bit strained, as when Maimonides is rhymed with crowds or the rabbi’s possible life sentence leads to the singing of “L’chaim” (Hebrew for “to life”). But I must admit that peeing often made me laugh. The number that brings the house down is “Friday Night”, which contains three groupies of the rabbi celebrating the Sabbath to a disco beat.
Rivkah Reyes plays the reporter who helps crack the murder case. Jahbril Cook portrays the rabbi’s son, whose testimony against his father proves to be crucial. And then there is Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who moves consciously with a heavy tread in the roles of villain and virtuous. The performers always remain visible to the extent that we watch actors playing community theater recreate a terrible event in the city’s past.
The fun popularity is expertly delivered. Donahue evokes a laid-back quality from his ensemble which is a skewed delight. The production is refreshingly free of bells and whistles, but the skills shown are still startling. It takes tremendous talent to maintain a low-key posture while keeping an audience engaged.
I left Geffen prepared to declare “A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” as a hit, with a few qualifications – namely that the storytelling needs a little cleaning up and that the role as a rabbi could be endowed with more than good looks and clumsy glow. . (The character remains empty even after he is convicted.) But as sometimes happens in the life of a critic, when I woke up the next day to write this review, I had other thoughts.
Treated like a pure fictional story, the musical is a delight. But a woman was murdered, a family was crushed and a society was hardened. Should I really chuckle at the dull lyrics of kibitzing spectators?
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” asks us to remember. But the show does not want us to remember too much. Thinking too deeply about the crime would ruin the fun. After all, this is a musical.
It is a pity that the story was not set elsewhere and separated from the journalistic record. A more elaborate approach would have avoided these disturbing moral questions. Such a fun musical should not make you writhe in the morning.
“An Evil Soul in Cherry Hill”
Where: Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA
When: 20.00 Tuesdays to Fridays, 15.00 and 20.00 Saturdays, 14.00 and 19.00 Sundays. Ends July 24th.
Tickets: $ 39- $ 129 (subject to change)
Consult: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org
Operating time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no break)