In 1994, the wife of a popular rabbi was murdered in her home in Cherry Hill, N.J. The case became a media sensation when it was discovered that the rabbi, who was having an affair with a Philadelphia radio personality, had paid to have his wife killed.
Playwright and composer Matt Schatz, who lived for a time with his family in Cherry Hill, has written a clever sung-through musical about the crime. Your enjoyment of the show may depend on how well you’re able to screen out the true-crime dimension of the story.
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill,” which is receiving its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in a charmingly unpretentious production directed by Mike Donahue, is a curiously jaunty work considering that it's about a real-life mother bludgeoned to death inside her own home.
The conceit is that we're watching an annual musical at the local Jewish Community Center about the crime. The townsfolk of this tightknit Jewish enclave have come together in amateur theatrical fashion to engage in a ritual of memory.
The show’s opening number begins with a question: "Why do we recount and recall?/ Can’t we just forget?/ Or even better yet/ Pretend it never happened at all?”
One of the answers intoned later in the musical is that “remembering’s what we do.” The “we” here is the Jewish people, persevering through a turbulent history that includes the collective memory of ancestors being marched to their graves.
Reenacting this heinous crime is a way to process the morally unspeakable. Neighbors have gathered to contemplate the gravity of the rabbi's sin, the nature of evil and the lingering shock that a pillar of the community could have been capable of such murderous duplicity. Their own gullibility haunts them as much as anything.
The Cantor has come with her guitar. Musicians, dressed like they just finished running errands at the mall, are visible on Alexander Woodward's auditorium set. One by one, the characters recall where they were when they first heard the news of the murder.
The pageant moves back in time to 1968, when the rabbi (played with runaway enthusiasm by Danny Rothman) first arrives in Cherry Hill to teach the teens. Handsome and athletic, he has an informal manner that declares a new sort of religious leader.
When asked what to call him, he says “Fred.” After spending time in Israel, he returns to form Congregation M'kor Shalom, a Reform Jewish synagogue. At this point, he wants to be called Rabbi, even as he maintains a strangely relaxed and at times seductive intimacy with his congregants.
This backstory is confusingly rendered. The sudden shifts in time are abrupt and sometimes hard to track. Adding to the blurriness is the way cast members are called upon to play multiple roles. This is common practice in the theater, but the characters an actor is called upon to perform aren't always clearly delineated.
Jill Sobule, the standout in the ensemble, plays not only the Cantor but also the rabbi’s wife (unnamed in the musical but clearly based on aspects of the life story of Carol Neulander). Sobule is so distinctive in her Cherry Hill ordinariness that it took me a minute to figure out that the rabbi wasn't in fact married to the Cantor.
The story of how the rabbi’s wife began the Cherry Hill Kosher Cake Company and grew the operation into a thriving catering business is recapped in a wonderful little conversational ditty. But the musical, created in the Geffen Playhouse's inaugural Writers' Room program, rarely allows us to get to know any of the characters in depth.
All that we can say about this marriage is that neither husband nor wife was home much. The rabbi’s affair with “The Lady on the Radio,” as she’s designated in the program, is sketched a bit more fully. But Zehra Fazal, who plays the newly widowed woman, can only do so much to bring this radio personality into three-dimensional life.
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” seems heavily influenced by “Come From Away." Both musicals introduce a cross section of humanity, though "A Wicked Soul" is not as successful in sorting out its characters. The show adopts its own indie-folk musical style to identify a community that's set apart. These denizens of Cherry Hill, located “10 miles outside of Philly,” "25 miles from Trenton" (as the characters singingly inform us in their version of “Welcome to the Rock” from “Come From Away"), are separated not by geographical but by religious and cultural distance.
Schatz’s lyrics are full of giddy wordplay. At times, the wit becomes a little labored, as when Maimonides is rhymed with quantities or the rabbi’s eventual life sentence occasions the singing of "L’chaim" (Hebrew for “to life”). But I'll admit the shtick often had me tittering. The number that brings the house down is “Friday Night," which features three groupies of the rabbi celebrating Shabbat 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 crucial. And then there’s Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who moves purposely with heavy tread in roles villainous and virtuous. The performers always remain visible to the extent that we’re watching actors playing community theater troupers reenacting a horrible event in their town's past.
The amusing folksiness is expertly delivered. Donahue elicits a laid-back quality from his ensemble that is a wry delight. The production is refreshingly free of bells and whistles, but the skill on display is nonetheless attention-grabbing. It requires enormous talent to maintain a low-key pose while holding an audience captive.
I left the Geffen prepared to declare “A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” a hit, with a few qualifications — namely, that the storytelling needs some cleaning up and that the role of the rabbi could be endowed with more than good looks and clumsy ardency. (The character remains a blank even after he's convicted.) But as occasionally happens in the life of a critic, when I woke the next day to write this review, I had second thoughts.
Treated as a purely fictional story, the musical is a delight. But a woman was murdered, a family shattered and a community left reeling. Should I really be chuckling over the droll lyrics of kibitzing bystanders?
“A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” enjoins us to remember. But the show doesn't want us to remember too much. To think too deeply about the crime would spoil the fun. This is a musical, after all.
It's a shame that the story wasn't set elsewhere and sundered from the journalistic record. A more thoroughly fabricated approach would have avoided these troubling moral issues. A musical this much fun shouldn't make you squirm in the morning.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.