The Secret of Our Souls-A Kabalistic Love Story
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
August 15, 2009
Records exist proving the birth, marriage, occupations held, and death of Israel Ben Eliezer (later known as the Baal Shem Tov). It is also factually accepted that he was the founder of Chassidic Judaism. (Please check Wikipedia and the Baal Shem Tov Foundation). He left few, if any, writings. Jacob Frank claimed to be the reincarnation of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi.
According to the program notes: Frank asked Archbishop Lubienski to dispute the Talmudists in an open debate. Legends say that the Baal Shem Tov appeared at the disputation, and history confirms that no edicts against Jewish people were enacted as a result.
The spiritual story told in The Secret of our Souls begins a few weeks before the debate with Jacob Frank. With book and lyrics by Ben Goldstein, who also directed the production, and beautiful music composed and arranged by Phillip Namanworth, the show is a very ambitious undertaking for an evening at the theatre. It is bound to have an epic and religious quality that doesn't allow a focus on the development of characters and dramatic situations, and most of all asks to be taken seriously as so much valuable historical information and spiritual lessons are crammed in it.
Satan (yes, the Devil, the "Adversary"), played by Adam Reich, opens the play by defining his role on earth: "to test the mettle of each man." He describes how he has banished the Jews from Western Europe and made them flee to the East where they face pogroms and assimilation. His challenge is to destroy the Baal Shem Tov, who holds them together and is at the end of his life of caring for the poor and providing spiritual teachings. Satan's songs are vibrant and playful, the Eastern European tunes offering an upbeat energy to his performance. Too bad that technical problems made the sound hurt our ears at times, as this musical obviously needs a bigger budget and a larger platform than FringeNYC can offer.
Back to the story: the Baal Shem Tov starts telling the journey that brought him here, and we begin to witness his life in flashbacks and crucial moments like marrying his betrothed Chana against the will of her brother Rabbi Gershon, living in the Carpathian mountains surrounded by a band of robbers, returning to civilization as a simple tavern keeper, struggling against Jacob Frank, and reviving a dead woman.
What can a reviewer say about a production of such a spiritual and religious weight? Not much, except for telling the story, otherwise the wrath of God and Satan and all the spiritual masters of the world will hit her. And to highlight a few of the very talented and committed actors: Aaron Schroeder (the young Baal Shem Tov), Alexis Fishman (Chana), John Anthony Lopez (Older Baal Shem Tov), Robert Zanfini (Rabbi Gershon). The thieves played by Bern Cohen and Isaiah Tanenbaum are charismatic, providing much needed comic relief.
And the songs are generally delightful, with many tunes and lyrics that stick in your mind and make you start humming: "It's Hard to Be a Jew", "I'll Be With You", "Secret of our Souls", "A Thief Like Me", "What Could it Hurt", etc.
Go to this show if you want to see some good actors in spiritual roles and get enlightened a bit. Don't go if you can't take a bear-costumed actor crossing the stage and killing the bad guy when he's not needed in the story anymore.