- Published on Saturday, 05 May 2012 15:54
- Written by J
Leap of Faith Review
Jim Miller for www.broadwayshowbiz.com
I had heard both good and bad reports on the new Broadway musical, Leap of Faith. I never saw the 1992 movie, which starred Steve Martin, on which the new show is based. I came into the St. James Theatre with an open mind, not knowing what to expect. It took a little while for me to warm up to the show, but I did, and Leap of Faith turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Yes, there are some legitimate issues with the show, but I found it entertaining and moving. The musical also features a dynamic star turn from Raul Esparza, along with a hard working, high energy supporting cast.
Esparza plays Jonas Nightingale, a con man faith healer and hustler. One of the show’s conceits is that the audience at the St. James Theatre is attending a present day revival meeting, taking place live at the St. James and presided over by Nightingale. He then takes us back to events that occurred a year earlier in Sweetwater, Kansas, which form the basis for the musical. The conceit didn’t bother me, but I don’t know if it adds to the show, and there are times where it is a bit confusing as to whether we are watching something happening at the revival or during the flashback. Nightingale’s troop is having financial problems, and they have landed in Sweetwater because their traveling bus has broken down. Jonas decides to hold a three day revival meeting in drought stricken Sweetwater. In the course of those three days, Jonas is arrested by and also romances the local sheriff, plus forms a bond with her wheelchair bound son, Jake. Jake believes in Jonas and is convinced the preacher can heel him and allow him to walk again. That relationship gives the musical its emotional core and heart, and the scenes between Jonas and Jake were a big factor in winning me over to Leap of Faith.
The show has many similarities to two superior musicals, The Music Man and 110 In the Shade. Even though it is derivative and often predictable, Leap of Faith nevertheless proved to be sufficiently compelling and dramatically involving. The creative team includes a number of successful, even distinguished theater people. The music is by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Menkin’s melodies do not match his best work, but the songs, most of which are gospel or country rooted, are appealing and often tuneful. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is lively and energetic, and Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps the musical moving at a brisk pace. Yet, there are no pure showstoppers, although the gospel songs do in general elevate the show.
The book is a mixed bag. It is written by Janus Cercone, who wrote the original Leap of Faith screenplay, and Warren Leight, writer of the Best Play Tony Winner Side Man. As I have said, the story has its strengths, and there are multiple characters and relationships that contribute drama and conflict to the show. But, when you step back and think about what you have watched, not everything makes total sense or stands up to analysis. There is an ambiguity and equivocation to the book and its handling of its themes. Some plot elements are a bit muddled and unclear. But there is enough that is effective in the story telling to compensate for these problems.
Esparza leads a superb cast. His characterization of Jonas grows as the evening goes on, culminating in a strong 11 o’clock number, “Jonas’ Soliloquy.” As written, Jonas is a doubter and not as charming as a Harold Hill, which makes him less sympathetic than is ideally the case. However, as noted, his scenes with the 13 year old Jake, played by the excellent and touching Talon Ackerman, work beautifully and do give us a reason to like Jonas, plus allowing for his ultimate redemption. Jessica Phillips is highly appealing as the sheriff. She does well with her conflicted feelings about Jonas. Kecia Lewis-Evans is terrific and provides some rousing gospel singing; Leslie Odom, Jr., who appears in Smash on television, is impressive as Lewis-Evans’ son, a real preacher who has his own doubts about Jonas. Kendra Kassebaum and Krystal Joy Brown also do strong work and some fine singing.
The musical’s critics have been understandably bothered by the plot issues and some of the other problems noted here. Some may not like the revival meeting elements, or might take issue with how faith is depicted in Leap of Faith. But the relationships made this show appealing, with the closing scenes, while not unexpected, proving to be highly satisfying. Earlier this week, the Tony nominations were announced, and Leap of Faith won the fourth slot in the Best Musical race, beating out three other shows (Bonnie and Clyde, Ghost, and Lysistrata Jones) for that nomination. Having seen all four of those shows, I would say Leap of Faith was deserving of that slot. It won’t win out over Once or Newsies, but I am glad it received this recognition. A case could also have been made for nominations for Esparza, the score, and some of the supporting performers. Leap of Faith still has a difficult road ahead if it hopes to survive, and it will not work for everyone. However, the mix of Esparza, a solid score, and the show’s big heart were enough to make for an involving and dramatically effective musical. I may not be leaping for joy over Leap of Faith, but I enjoyed it.