Leap of Faith: Theater Review

Joan Marcus, 2012
Raul Esparza
An improvement on the movie but still not quite a religious experience.

Raul Esparza plays con-man evangelist Jonas Nightingale in the gospel-flavored musical reworking of the Steve Martin movie, with songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

NEW YORK – The 1992 movie no doubt has its fans, but for this reviewer, Leap of Faith was a charmless yawn whose chief distinction was the embarrassing weirdness of watching Steve Martin jogging in a crop top. Part fable about self-discovery and redemption and part takedown of shyster evangelism, the film fudged its position on whether the cynical main character had been truly enlightened by his spiritual journey, or whether such a journey had even occurred. The stage musical improves on the original simply by settling on a point of view. But despite Raul Esparza’s hard-working lead performance and some rousing gospel numbers from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, the story remains stubbornly unappealing.

Opening on Broadway the same week as the slavish screen-to-stage transplant of Ghost, the musical Leap of Faith earns points by at least rethinking its source for another medium, often in smart ways, too. Adapting her screenplay, Janus Cercone has collaborated with playwright Warren Leight (a Tony winner for Side Man, and showrunner on Law & Order: SVU) to clarify plot themes, redefining some characters while inventing or excising others. The resulting show has more heart than the movie, but still not enough.

Passing through the hands of three different directors probably hasn’t helped. The project was originally announced as the stage debut of Taylor Hackford, who remained attached through its development and workshops. He left prior to its 2010 premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, with choreographer Rob Ashford stepping up to take the directing reins. Ashford also subsequently departed, along with leading lady Brooke Shields and her character, making way for the Broadway team of director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, both on autopilot.

Charismatic con men preying on small-town rubes have served as protagonists of musicals before, among them The Music Man and 110 in the Shade. But this show makes almost all of its main characters unsympathetic.

That includes unscrupulous revival preacher Jonas Nightingale (Esparza); his jaded sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), who runs the technical side of their flimflam operation and corresponds to the Debra Winger figure in the movie; and the brittle, widowed Sherriff Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), who has undergone a gender switch (she started life onscreen as Liam Neeson). As Jonas’ hesitant love interest, Marla supplants the waitress, Marva, played by Shields in L.A. and by Lolita Davidovich in the film.

Only marginally more likeable is Isaiah Sturdevant (Leslie Odom Jr.), a new character who becomes a rival to Jonas for leadership of his traveling revival troupe. His mother Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) and sister Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown) are members of the accompanying Angels of Mercy choir. Along with Marla’s disabled 13-year-old son Jake (Talon Ackerman), these secondary figures represent the small minority of folks onstage who actually convey some warmth.

In a clumsy framing device, the action takes place in a Broadway theater during a three-night New York revival meeting. A “Nightingale’s Flock” cameraman runs around filming the audience as ensemble members urge them to wave their hands in the air. The company then shares the Kansas-based central story – Jonas’ testimony – as an example of the inspirational road to faith.

With cornfields and a revival tent sprouting up amid the risers on Robin Wagner’s unattractive set, the action moves to the dustbowl hamlet of Sweetwater, where Jonas and his troupe prepare to separate the drought-stricken, impoverished locals from their cash.

Able to spot a “Fox in the Henhouse” when she sees one, Marla provides opposition, attempting to run Jonas out of town, but not before bedding him. Another obstacle surfaces when Isaiah returns from Bible College and starts questioning the ethics of showbiz religion. But Marla’s son Jake, who has been in a wheelchair since the accident that killed his father three years earlier, truly believes Jonas can heal him. Likewise, the townspeople are ready to invest in the promise of rain.

This being a musical, lessons are learned and miracles happen. It’s not important whether those events occur due to divine faith or to the characters’ strengthened belief in themselves. What matters is that some kind of spiritual conversion has taken place.

Unfortunately, none of this is all that uplifting, but the actors give it their best shot. Chief among them is Esparza, a devilishly sexy showman who hard-sells emotional intensity like few others. That can be thrilling in the right role. But while he grows more interesting in the second act when he reveals glimmers of a soul worth saving, so much about Jonas is off-putting that he never really connects.

Marla is a bit of a drag, not to mention inconsistent, but the appealing country twang Phillips brings to her vocals helps. She and Kessebaum share a refreshingly tender moment that softens their characters in the duet, “People Like Us.”

While Isaiah’s stiff righteousness also makes him hard to warm to, Odom (Smash) releases such sweet sounds when he sings and such silky moves when he dances that even agnostics might melt.  And as his mother and sister, the terrific Lewis-Evans and Brown bring powerhouse pipes and get to test them often, notably on Ida Mae’s sermon to the audience, “Lost,” and in choral crowd bait such as “Rise Up!” and “Step Into the Light.” Fans of the gospel sound might have a fine time, even if it’s a little too synthetic to rapturously transport the audience the way the show’s creators appear to have in mind.

While Trujillo’s choreography often seems on the verge of taking flight and rarely does, his formation movement for the choir works well. The songs are more than serviceable, and Menken knows how to write melodies. In addition to gospel, he dips into Motown, Broadway and country-pop, and the title number, which closes the show, is catchy. But none of it sounds terribly original or succeeds in covering for the shortage of emotional involvement. Ultimately, it’s hard to shake the feeling that despite all its singing to the Lord, Leap of Faith was never meant to be a musical.

Venue: St. James Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Raul Esparza, Jessica Phillips, Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom Jr., Krystal Joy Brown, Talon Ackerman, Bryce Ryness, C.E. Smith, Dennis Stowe, Roberta Waal, Michelle Duffy, Dierdre Friel

Director: Christopher Ashley

Music: Alan Menken

Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Book: Janus Cercone, Warren Leight, based on the film produced by Paramount Pictures and written by Cercone

Set designer: Robin Wagner

Costume designer: William Ivey Long

Lighting designer: Don Holder

Sound designer: John Shivers

Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo

Music supervisor: Michael Kosarin

Music director: Brent-Alan Huffman

Orchestrations: Michael Starobin, Joseph Joubert

Presented by Michael Mannheim, James D. Stein, Douglas L. Meyer, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Annette Niemtzow, Daryl Roth, Robert G. Bartner, Steven and Shanna Silva, Endgame Entertainment, Patricia Monaco, Debi Coleman, Dancap Productions, Steve Kaplan, Relativity Media, Rich/Caudwell, Center Theatre Group, in association with Michael Palitz, Richard J. Stern, Melissa Pinsly/Celine Rosenthal, Independent Presenters Network, Diana Buckhantz, Pamela Cooper, Vera Guerin, Leading Investment Co., Christina Papagjika, Victor Syrmis, Semlitz/Glaser Productions and Jujamcyn Theaters