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A CurtainUp Review
Leap of Faith
By Elyse Sommer
Now, the producers of another faith-themed screen-to-stage musical, Leap of Faith, have banked on the revision by Warren Leight (Tony winning playwright of Side Man) of the book by Janus Cercone (who also scripted the Paramount film), a new director (Christopher Ashley) and its invaluable original star, Raul Esparza to bring it to Broadway. Leight has obviously worked hard to tidy up the messy story, changed and developed some of the characters and create d some site specific tie-ins to get the audience fired up. — but the whole enterprise remains sinfully unconvincing. And, even with the magnetic Esparza on board, singing and dancing up a storm, it will take a heap of ticket buying enthusiasts to make this Revival Meeting leap anywhere near the top of the best selling, long-lived show list.
I never saw the 1992 film with Steve Martin, but I have seen and liked several productions of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt charming 110 in the Shade. I also have vivid recollections of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry (both the book and the terrific film version). Add fond recollections of one of the musical stage's most memorable flim-flammers, The Music Man to explain that I'm not unreceptive to another take on this sort of crowd rousing, sexy flim-flam character. Sadly, Leap of Faith is just a very poor cousin of these stories.
The score by the usually much better Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater is only occasionally rousing from start to finish and emotionally movingf (like Esparza's "Jonas's Soliloqy"). All too often, it's repetitive and too harshly orchestrated. Sergio Trujillo's choreography is equally repetitive. The designers are the same as at the Los Angeles tryout. None are up to their usual top-drawer standards here.
The show begins even before curtain time with some more irritating and corny than fun shtick: Members of the large Leap of Faith chorus roam the aisles trying to get the audience into the Hallelujah mood with hand shakes and Praise the Lord riffs. There's also a man who directs his video camera at the audience so that they can see themselves projected on the large screens at either side of the stage. (Later in the show these screens are used to project closeups of Esparza doing his most wired soul saving numbers which is actually not a bad idea for theatergoers not sitting in prime seats.)
This pre-show warmup did little for this writer except make me wish I hadn't arrived early. The sense being constantly nudged into getting into the revival spirit, continued when the lights dimmed and the large African-American Angels of Mercy chorus came strutting down the aisles. They were joined on stage by Raul's flim-flamming Jonas for the first of many sound-alike, over-miked gospel numbers.
After establishing that this is a site specific revival, the scene shifts from the St. James Theatre for a flashback to a year earlier in Sweetwater, a drought stricken little Kansas town where Jonas and his followers got stuck when their bus broke down. The bus is indicative of the troupe's general state of affairs. In other words, they're so low on cash that the Angels haven't been paid in weeks.
While Jonas's kid sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) thinks they should expand their horizons and instead of hallelujahing the townspeople of small towns out of their limited savings, they should become a more sophisticated, high tech operation, perhaps doing their preaching on cable TV. But Jonas is unwilling to risk exposing himself to the hundreds of people who believe he's wronged them. Instead he sees their breakdown in Sweetwater as a chance to make a big score by convincing the townspeople that they need to be redeemed before the drought can end.
To add conflict theres the local sheriff, Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips) who sees right through the scam operation. But her song "A Fox in the Henhouse" tells him that his "flash and filigree" She unsurprising ends up in his bed. Despite being smitten with the foxy preacher, Marla's determination to put an end to the deceitful prayer meetings is intensified by her need to protect Jake (Talon Ackerman), her wheelchair bound son from getting hurt by false hopes. You see Jake does believe in Jonas and is the deus ex machina for Jonas himself to make that leap of faith.
As if the details about how Jonas and Sam operate their revivals, the jail threatening but romantically embroiled sheriff and the endearing Tiny Tim-like crippled lad weren't enough, there's Isiaah Sturdevant (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the son of Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans), the Chorus's bookkeeper and standard issue big mamma belter. Seems Isiah, a divinity student, who considers himself a real man of God also sees through Jonas.
While all these characters get a chance to speak and occasionally sing, there really aren't any starmaking turns, which includes the main characters.By the time Jonas has made his own inevitable leap of faith and gets his shiny suit all wet from the equally inevitable rainfall, one can only pray that someone is writing a better show for the man who has enriched musicals like Stephen Sondheim's Company as well as straight plays like Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. But while Esparza is a fiercely powerful and attractive performer, he's not a magician which is what it would take to save this show from its mediocrity.
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