Leap of Faith -- Theater Review

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Like the little engine that could, "Leap of Faith," a Broadway-bound new musical that opened at the Ahmanson Theatre, earnestly keeps plugging away on its long journey up the mountain. Fortunately, each time the show threatens to run out of steam, there's a dynamic gospel-propelled revival scene on the way to help regain momentum.

Whether this is enough to make it to Broadway, let alone stay awhile, remains to be seen. Despite a creative team with impeccable credits -- direction and choreography by Rob Ashford, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Janus Cercone and Slater -- there's a strong sense of deja vu hovering over the production. Think "Elmer Gantry," "The Rainmaker" and "The Music Man," among others.

Based on the 1992 film that Cercone wrote and starring Steve Martin, "Leap" is set in Sweetwater, Kan., where a long drought has the cornfields and residents looking similarly parched. When silver-tongued Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza) and his traveling band of fast-buck religious revivalists find themselves stuck in this "shithole," Jonas decides to stay awhile and pick up some easy money. It's clear from the moment we meet Jonas that, even for a religious con man, he's in a class by himself. He and his little sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), wear their cynicism like a badge of honor. As for his mixed-race gospel choir, as long as the money keeps rolling in, they have no complaints.

When Jonas tries to pick up pretty waitress Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields) at the local diner, we can see where the show is heading. Marva is a widowed single mother with a sweet kid, Boyd (finely played and sung by Nicholas Barasch), who has lost the use of his legs in a car accident that also killed his father. Marva isn't about to fall for someone as blatantly insincere and crooked as Jonas, but Jonas reads her skepticism and other needs perfectly. It's not long before Marva's resistance weakens and Boyd awaits the miracle he knows Jonas can provide.

The rest of the show tries to make Jonas' change of heart and mind into a decent person -- under Marva and Boyd's influence -- appear believable. This is a tall order, especially because Marva isn't that compelling a character, harkening to her much smaller role in the film. Shields' presence doesn't solve the problem. She looks out of place in Sweetwater, and her bland singing and modest acting style lack the bite and depth that might make a thoroughly lost soul like Jonas take a leap of faith into love.

Esparza, on the other hand, along with the wonderful gospel choir, almost single-handedly keeps the show alive. This is a brilliantly acted and sung performance that allows the four-time Tony nominee to exhibit the full range of his considerable talent. His "Soliloquy" near the show's end, in which he expresses the full scope of his painfully wicked nature, is memorable.

The supporting cast boasts strong performances from Kecia Lewis-Evans -- with her knockout voice, pity she doesn't have a gospel number all to herself; Leslie Odom Jr. as her high-minded son; Krystal Joy Brown; and Jarrod Emick as the town sheriff determined to rid the town of Jonas and his band of hucksters.

Faith is a tricky subject to handle without getting maudlin, shrill or simplistic, and "Leap" doesn't make these mistakes. There's an affecting power to the show at times that can't be denied, especially in Act 2. But whether Esparza and those dynamic revival scenes are enough to carry the day might require more of a leap of faith, at this stage of development, than the Big Apple is prepared to make.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through Oct. 24)
Cast: Raul Esparza, Brooke Shields, Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Nicholas Barasch, Leslie Odom Jr., Jarrod Emick, Krystal Joy Brown. Book: Janus Cercone with Glenn Slater
Music: Alan Menken. Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Director-choreographer: Rob Ashford.
Set designer: Robin Wagner
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Musical supervision: Michael Kosarin
Sound designer: John Shivers
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin, Joseph Joubert
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