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Broadway Reviews

Leap of Faith

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.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for 8 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $47 - $252
Tickets: Telecharge

Raúl Esparza
Photo by Joan Marcus

With all the references to revivals scattered throughout Leap of Faith, you may be excused for temporarily forgetting the people onstage are talking about religious meetings instead of theatrical productions. Making things more difficult is the fact that this new musical at the St. James, despite being based on the 1992 film of the same title, often reminds you most of the kind of revivals it's not referring to.

In other words: overblown with glitz, a bit on the chintzy side, laden with clunky concepts or rewrites, and more about surface-level effect than relating a story worth telling. In terms of the blending of style and content, it's somewhere between The Music Man and 110 in the Shade, which have themselves received major (and, frankly, better) resuscitations in recent years. Uncomfortable comparisons to those classics are unavoidable given the plot, which concerns a traveling "preacher" (including the quotation marks) named Jonas Nightingale whose non-faith is challenged by a woman and her son just before a miracle happens to prove him maybe—maybe!—right.

The good news about the work that's been created by Warren Leight and Janus Cercone (book), Glenn Slater (lyrics), and Alan Menken (music), and which has been choreographed by Sergio Trujillo and directed by Christopher Ashley, is that it's as inoffensive as it is insipid. Unlike Menken's musical from last season, Sister Act, this one doesn't vivisect the value of Cercone's screenplay expressly for purposes of mocking the original's message. Leap of Faith may wear its sentimentality on its glittery sleeve, but it's a straightforward, respectable attempt to respin the movie for live performance.

Its execution, however, is a different matter. Whereas the film proceeded traditionally, the stage version is set within the frame of a revival meeting being held at, um, the St. James. What unfolds, then, as we meet Jonas (Raúl Esparza), is not "real," but a staged morality tale through which we observe our antihero's redemption without needing to invest our own precious emotions. This gives the borders of the show exactly the slick, heartless feel they don't need.

Because of the setup's falsity, it's difficult to know what's fair to critique, or even whether any of the characters exist at all. But, for the sake of argument: Jonas's presentation takes us back what he claims is one year, to when his bus broke down and he, his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), and their traveling Angels of Mercy choir set up their tent for three days in drought-stricken Sweetwater, Kansas, with the intention of saving some souls and, of course, bilking the poor residents out of their cash.

Kendra Kassebaum, Raúl Esparza, and Jessica Phillips.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Things become hard to swallow right away when Jonas falls afoul of the local sheriff, Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), who subscribes to no faith herself and doesn't trust Jonas at all. She's a realist, having lost her husband in the car accident that also claimed the walking ability of her son Jake (Talon Ackerman), and having taken over her current position from her husband, she... Wait, what? Yes, "sheriff" is apparently an inheritable occupation in the magical land of Sweetwater. And the spells are so strong, in fact, that Marla is sleeping with Jonas mere hours after their first encounter, something that does not enhance the evening's already waning credibility.

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.

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