Thoughts on “Leap of Faith” First Preview- 4/3/12 @ St James Theater

by: Dan Mason (@djdan1079)

Leap of Faith is the stage adaptation of the little seen 1992 movie starring Steve Martin as a flim-flam, travelling preacher with an appetite for booze, women, and swindling the downtrodden. After a critically panned tryout in Los Angeles last year, producers scrambled to rework the show in time for this year’s Tony Award deadline. Originally scheduled as part of the fall season, the show was fast tracked into the St James to take advantage of On a Clear Day’s closing, and a generally weak season for new musicals, where even the dreadful Lysistrata Jones was actually being talked about as a best musical nominee.

Among the changes were the firing of the vocally limited Brooke Shields as the female love interest, and actually combining her single mom character with that of the town sheriff (played by Liam Neeson in the film). New songs were written by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, and the book was cut down to reduce the 3 hour runtime in LA. That’s an awful lot to fix in a short amount of time, but Alan Menken tweeted after the last workshop that they had “fixed” the show.

Was his assessment correct? Well, partially so. Leap of Faith, while not a perfect musical, is a whole lot of fun. Members of the ensemble walk through the house during the pre show, shaking hands with the “congregation”, asking if we’ve heard of the Rev. Jonas Nightengale. A cameraman is in the house shooting video of audience members that is projected on flat screens across the theater. But the show doesn’t really begin until the preacher takes the stage and from the moment Raul Esparza walks through that curtain, he commands the attention of all around him. Esparza (Company, Speed The Plow) is, without question, the show’s biggest asset in a role that he seems born to play. Nightengale is a bad man, with a rap sheet that would make Harold Hill and Freddy Benson blush. Yet, Esparza is so charismatic, that you can’t help but cheer for him to pull off the next swindle. Backed by his huge gospel choir, “The Angels”, the show is at its best during the tent revival scenes. The energy during the opening 15 minutes is off the charts as the huge ensemble kills the song “Rise Up”, and makes you believe Jesus is ready to walk into the room.

Once the plot is set in motion, however, some weaknesses in the material are exposed. Jessica Phillips (Priscilla Queen of The Desert) replaces Shields in the revamped role of Marla. She is the single mom of a handicapped son, but now also the no-nonsense sheriff of Sweetwater, Kansas. Herein lies the problem. Phillips, while a great singer, has a presence that feels more like an assistant principal of the local high school than a Sheriff who can handle the local criminals.  Phillips tries to make Marla tough, but it mostly comes off as cold and detached, which is especially problematic when it comes to how she deals with her wheelchair bound son, Jake, played by Tyler Ackerman (Bonnie & Clyde). In one scene, Marla goes to Jonas’ hotel to serve him with papers demanding he leave the city, but ends up giving into his charms and spends the night. When her son shows up at the hotel to speak to Jonas, not knowing that his mother has been sexing the preacher, it just feels awkward. Are we supposed to like the mother that leaves her child rolling around the streets in a wheelchair at midnight while she is sleeping with a man she knows is a con artist? What kind of parent is that? And what kind of law enforcement officer is allowing herself to sleep with a huge threat to the town’s citizens?

Some will argue that the other supporting characters are not well-developed either, and I very much disagree. What’s interesting is that much of the character development happens through Slater’s lyrics than the book scenes. Kendra Kassebaum (Wicked), plays Jonas’ sister and partner in crime, Sam. She gets a lovely song in act 2 called “People Like Us” where she explains how she and her brother were left to fend for themselves as kids and why their bond is so strong. Kecia Lewis-Evans is amazing in the role of Ida Mae, the choir leader who is also cooking the books for the Nightengale operation. Her act 1 song, “Lost” is a great song about why it’s necessary to lie to protect the people you love, and perhaps even yourself. Leslie Odom Jr (Smash), is fantastic and in gorgeous voice as Isaiah, Ida Mae’s son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps to be a “real” preacher, and despises the PT Barnum act that his mother participates in. Finally, there is a tremendous 11 o’ clock number, “Jonas’ Soliloquy”, where Jonas confronts his own crisis of faith. It’s a stirring performance by Esparza and he hits it out of the park. In a competitive year for men on Broadway, you have to believe Esparza is in line for a Tony nomination for this show.

Ultimately, Leap of Faith wants to tug at your heartstrings with a predictable ending that you see coming 20 minutes into the show. Because you know where it’s headed, the emotional payoff falls somewhat flat. To be honest,  Ghost is more likely to be the tear inducing musical of the season. However, if the final destination in Leap of Faith feels unsatisfying, at least Esparza and this amazing ensemble will make the journey there a fun ride.

Leave a comment if you see the show over the course of previews. I’m interested to see what changes are made.

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