Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2012
Leap of Faith Based on the motion picture, "Leap of Faith," produced by Paramount Corporation and written by Janus Cercone. Music by Alan Menken. Book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Music supervision by Michael Kosarin. Scenery designed by Robin Wagner. Costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Lighting designed by Don Holder. Sound designed by John Shivers. Video Coordinator Shawn Sagody. Wigs & hair designed by Paul Huntley. Make-up designed by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Joseph Joubert. Cast: Raúl Esparza, with Jessica Phillips, and Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom, Jr., Krystal Joy Brown, Talon Ackerman, Hettie Barnhill, Kyle Brenn, Ta'Rea Campbell, Michelle Duffy, Lynorris Evans, Manoly Farrell, Dierdre Friel, Bob Gaynor, Lucia Giannetta, Angela Grovey, Louis Hobson, Tiffany Janene Howard, Grason Kingsberry, Fletcher McTaggart, Maurice Murphy, Ian Paget, Terita Redd, Eliseo Román, Bryce Ryness, Ann Sanders, C.E. Smith, Danny Stiles, Dennis Stowe, Betsy Struxness, Roberta Wall, Virginia Ann Woodruff.
These are departures from, but not improvements on, what's in the film: There, the skeptic is Marva, a simpler waitress, whom Jonas woos while dodging a separate sheriff showing how the huckster approaches marks on all fronts. The musical replaces the second antagonist with Isaiah Sturdevant (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the son of Jonas's choir leader Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans), who disapproves of his mother being used by a charlatan. But as that characterization requires Ida Mae and her other Angels to be incapable of seeing what's right in front of them, and for Isaiah to be clueless enough to propose it in the first place, that doesn't exactly work, either.
If you're willing and able to forget about all this it's possible to have a decent, if seldom above-average, time at Leap of Faith. Menken, king of the earworm-spawning tune (just check out the currently running Sister Act and Newsies), is not at his best here; there's little more than watered-down gospel and vague conversational numbers that don't allow Menken many musically expressive moments, and Slater's lyrics are serviceable but forgettable. (One major exception is "Are You on the Bus?", which is memorable for the wrong reasons.) Much the same is true of Robin Wagner's set, which looks cheap even if you consider its individual elements to be fake revival meeting props (though the self-raising and revolving tent is nifty), and William Ivey Long's costumes, which skew hopelessly generic whether jeans and gingham shirts or choir robes.
Ashley's staging is perfunctory, and Trujillo's dances, which don't easily blend country and church-Sunday styles, are only slightly better. Nor do many of the performances rise above the commonplace. Talented as Esparza is, he's far too dark to convince as either a dream seller or a redeemable sleaze, and his duplicities are so lacking subtlety and charm that you can't believe anyone would fall for them. He also overshoots earnestness in his final solo, landing smack-dab in overly obvious hand wringing that makes you wonder whether he's still working you. Only in the Act I finale, "King of Sin," when Jonas must think fast in front of a crowd to change Marla's accusations into gold-getters, do Esparza's gifts fuse with Jonas's and create a person with a vivid soul.
Phillips is fine, but offers little clue as to what about her, other than a challenge, would turn Jonas's head. Better are Ackerman and especially Kassebaum, who each find good balances between belief and skepticism in Jonas's powers. Krystal Joy Brown also makes a deep impression as Ida Mae's spunky, easily led daughter. But the finest overall work comes from Lewis-Evans, who delivers every line and song (particularly her big solo, "Lost," the show's musical highlight) with a touching sincerity that cuts right to the central, if clichéd, message: You can find light in even the most oppressive darkness. And if you have the truth on your side, you won't have to look very hard for it.
Everything around Ida Mae is stumbling in its quest for truth, and doesn't find providing jolting entertainment a much easier task. In the end, for everything about Leap of Faith that suffices, you can't buy what it's selling. Like Jonas's revival and the "miracles" he effects therein, it's little more than snake oil: It may make you feel better, provided you don't think about it or what's in it.