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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Leap of Faith
Minneapolis Musical Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Complicated Fun and Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical


Matt Tatone and Cast
Photo by Lisa Persson
First things first: Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Leap of Faith is an enjoyable musical with a well-written book and tuneful score, a talented cast that acts, sings and dances up a storm, and a rousing production that packs enormous energy onto the compact New Century Theatre stage. The surprise is that all this good news is in reference to a musical that bombed on Broadway four years ago.

Given that Leap of Faith was unloved by both critics and audiences when it closed after only nineteen performances in 2012, and that I had liked but not loved the 1992 movie (of the same name) on which the musical is based, I walked into the theater with modest expectations. Of course, I should have known better. Minneapolis Musical Theatre has a knack for selecting unheralded or off-kilter shows and polishing them up to a bright shine. With Leap of Faith, MMT again demonstrates what a valuable company it is.

Leap of Faith is the story of a charlatan faith healer by the name Jonas Nightingale whose traveling revival show has about run out of steam. Jonas's sister Sam, whom he has taken care of since childhood when their preacher dad died, works with him to set up their cons, using feigned miracles to separate the locals from their money. Jonas is unable to pay his road crew and choir, called the Angels of Mercy. The last blow seems to have been dealt when their bus breaks down outside Sweetwater, Kansas, a small town with troubles of its own brought on by a savage drought. Jonas is convinced he can use the drought to his own advantage and that the townspeople will pitch in whatever they have to "buy" desperately needed rain.

Not long after pitching their revival tent, Jonas and Sam are visited by Marla McGowan, Sweetwater's sheriff. She is not taken in by Jonas's flash and high-flown talk of spiritual revival, and wants his troupe to leave town. However, fate intervenes and Jonas and his crew are given three days to stay in Sweetwater as they await parts needed to repair their bus. That is time enough for the hostile sheriff and shifty faith healer to find they are drawn to one another, and for a naïve teenage boy, crippled as the result of an accident, to become convinced that Jonas can make him walk again. There is also time for Ida Mae, the lead Angel and Jonas' discreet bookkeeper, to be visited by her son Isaiah, a newly minted bonafide preacher who genuinely believes the gospel and is aghast at the deceit in which his mother takes part.

Alan Menken and Glen Slater wrote a strong collection of songs for Leap of Faith, drawing upon gospel, blues, and country motifs. Most of the songs advance the plot or add depth to character development, as songs in a musical should do. The opening number, "Rise Up!," lays out the basic schism between true believers and the hokum Jonas peddles. "Fox in the Henhouse" makes it plain that Sheriff Marla is onto every trick Jonas intends to play, while "I Can Read You" opens up cracks in their stand-off that allows feelings of tenderness for one another to appear. In "Lost," Ida Mae reveals the trouble she feels in her heart, having to compromise some of her beliefs in order for her and her family to survive. Isaiah launches into "Dancin' in the Devil's Shoes" as his way of calling out Jonas and his troupe for their unholy revival show. In Act two, "Long Past Dreamin'" allows Marla to be vulnerable, and "Are You on the Bus?" is a terrific three-part harmony for Sam, Ida Mae, and Ornella (Ida Mae's jaded daughter), who cast aside any misgivings about the revival show.

James Cercone (who wrote the film's screenplay) and Warren Leight (winner of the 1999 Best Play Tony Award for Sideman) provide believable dialogue and created characters with genuine feelings. I do have one big reservation about the book: in the film, the character of the sheriff trying to shut Jonas down and the character who finds a tender place in his heart are two different people. The musical combines those two in the person of Marla. It strains credulity that a person as smart and strong willed as Marla would jeopardize her professional duties by giving in to romantic urges toward the subject of her investigation. For whatever reason Cercone and Leight made this change, it undermines what otherwise is a well-developed, even compelling, narrative.

Still, that misstep does not prevent Leap of Faith from working. Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha has directed the material with a firm hand, with cogent storytelling played straight, free of irony that would cheapen the material. Attention is paid to have every character on stage remain at all times engaged and responsive to whoever is in the spotlight, strengthening the characters and relationships among them. Emily Madigan's choreography makes us forget how small the stage is at the New Century, allowing the small ensemble movement to use dance to embellish the story.

Matt Tatone makes a smashing impression as Jonas. He beautifully acts the part of the conflicted con artist, so we believe both his tough determination to keep the scam going and his doubts and misgivings about those he hurts in his wake, as well as his tender feelings toward his sister Sam. Tatone has a full, emotive singing voice. Late in the show, "Jonas's Soliloquy" brings together the strengths of his performance in a powerful turn that seals the fate of the story.

Emily Jansen plays Marla McGowan with no-nonsense resolve, but also allows her to soften in various ways that make her appear a more whole, but not a weaker, person. Jill Iverson is feisty and clear-headed as Sam, whose drive runs the revival show's organization. Sonya Nolen-Moon as Ida Mae and Brandon A. Jackson as Isaiah both imbed their characters with deeply felt heart and soul, and both deliver vocals that soar. As teen-aged Jake, the die-hard believer, Andrew Hey is persuasively sincere, as well as courageous in hanging on to his faith.

The ensemble sings and moves well, and in choral numbers, is joined by the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, who add depth to the vocal power of Menken and Slater's songs. The band, under music director Alison Shirk, performs the score with a keen feel for its blues and gospel roots. The physical production is fairly modest, with a minimal set and functional costumes. Grant Merges' lighting effectively conveys changes in mood, from introspective to robust, and from optimistic to discouraged.

Leap of Faith is not a show for the ages, but it is a good show, well worth seeing, that deserves a place in the canon of musical theater beyond its brief run on Broadway. It entertains as it tells a good story with characters who need and find redemption. Once again, Minneapolis Musical Theatre amply rewards those who place their faith in its work.

Leap of Faithis produced by Minneapolis Musical Theatre. It continues through May 22, 2016 at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $30.00. For information and tickets call 612-455-9525 or go to http://www.aboutmmt.org.

Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Glenn Slater; Book: Janus Cercone and Warren Leight; Based on the motion picture Leap of Faith produced by Paramount Pictures Corporation and written by Janus Cercone; Director: Sarah Pillatzki-Warzeha; Vocal Director: Christian Unser; Music Director: Alison Shirk; Choreographer: Emily Madigan; Set Design: Darren Hansel; Costume Design: Clara Cavins Wolford; Lighting Design: Grant Merges; Audio Design: Abe Gabor; Properties Design: Jane Ryan; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler.

Cast: Sarah Adams (Angel), Brianna Graham (Ornella), Andrew Hey (Jake), Jill Iverson (Sam), Brandon A. Jackson (Isaiah), Emily Jansen (Marla), Alana LaBissoniere (Angel), Christian LaBissoniere (Angel), Sonya Nolen-Moon (Ida Mae), Adam Rousar (Angel/dance captain), Grant Ruckheim (Angel), Carl Swanson (Angel), Matt Tatone (Jonas Nightingale), Aly Westberg (Angel).

Chorale: Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir.


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