nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 26, 2006
Soul Searching, the new musical by Matt Okin and Avi Kunstler, is about one woman's quest for the perfect man. Now, it isn't as shallow as that little description might make it sound. In fact, Okin and Kunstler have a reasonably profound moral to impart in this sweet-natured and earnest show, which is that it may take you a long time to find what you think you really want, and so you may as well enjoy and appreciate the journey on the way to whatever that is. (The two penultimate songs in the show, "The Journey" and "When the Right Time Comes," bring home this point; they're the strongest items in the score.)
The protagonist of Soul Searching is Brenda, who is Jewish, an Upper West Sider, a teacher, and tired of being alone. In the first act, her three friends Rachel, Becky, and Sara set her up with men who, as it turns out, have some of the worst qualities of their respective husbands: Alan is an Orthodox Jew who thinks a woman's place is in the home; Peter is a mystic enamored of cults and celebrities; and Mo is a high-powered businessman who assumes money can buy him love. Not only are these three men quickly rejected by Brenda, they help focus her friends on the problems they're facing in their marriages. As the first act concludes, all four women are questioning their life situations.
In the play's second act, things work themselves out for all concerned, with the help of a wise rabbi and an unattached single man who assures Brenda and the others that, with faith and patience, one's objectives can always be achieved. Though all of the characters in Soul Searching are Jewish, the faith professed at the show's end is strongly secular: faith in oneself as well as faith in one's God are what Brenda and her friends are shown to require. It is admittedly a kind of generalized feel-good message, but it makes for an upbeat ending that (it seems to me) feels intuitively true.
The best thing about Soul Searching is Kunstler's varied, pop-rock-styled score (additional music and lyrics are by Okin). The songs are catchy, tuneful, and pleasing, ranging from the driving "On the Upper West Side" to the plaintive "Don't Hold On To Promises" to the doo-wop-inflected "Pretty Girl" to the very lovely "100 Days." This last song is performed beautifully by Max Roll, by the way, who plays another of Brenda's would-be beaux, a fellow named Michael who, thanks in part to Roll's charming performance, we find ourselves rooting for.
Unfortunately, Roll proves to be the only cast member who's able to do justice to the material. Aaron Grant, double-cast as Mo and Sara's husband, does credible work but his singing voice is on the weak side. Everyone else in the 10-person ensemble fares poorly both with acting and singing.
So we're not really seeing Soul Searching at its best in this production. Okin's staging is fine—it was always clear to me where he wanted the show to go, and the higher-production-value image that he seems to have in his head, guiding his vision in this necessarily stripped-down off-off-Broadway staging, was always evident. One poor decision was the use of headsets in a very intimate venue, the effect of which is to make a lot of the lyrics muddy and hard to understand.
But the material feels strong to me; Soul Searching, in the right venue and with the right cast, has the potential, I think, to be a real crowd-pleaser—a feel-good date show on the order of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. I know that Okin and Kunstler have been developing this show for a long time. I hope it can have another life after this staging.