The last musical of the official Broadway season comes into town like a huckster promising salvation. But it's the show itself that needs saving.
There's a strong musical somewhere in "Leap of Faith," which stars a soulful Raul Esparza and has some of Alan Menken's best songs.
But what opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre is sometimes confusing in its tone. Like its main character – the devious faith healer Rev. Jonas Nightingale, ready to scam residents of a down-and-out Kansas town – the musical is hard to pin down. There's too much misdirection.
The show is based on the 1992 film starring Steve Martin that was written by Janus Cercone. This time, she has teamed up with Warren Leight for a book that keeps the preacher's rhinestone jacket but plays up the romance.
"Leap of Faith" feels like many hands have tried to heal it over the years since it had its world premiere in late 2010 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It's both overwritten and yet underwritten. It breaks the fourth wall repeatedly and also pretends it hasn't.
It sometimes comments on itself and then falls back into being a conventional musical. It exposes the high-tech tricks that fraudulent preachers use – and then tries to pull its own magic tricks on us. It keeps tripping itself up.
"Do you even know when you're lying anymore?" the preacher is asked at one point.
"Not so much," he answers.
All that obscures a terrific Esparza and Jessica Phillips, who plays the widowed town official skeptical of Nightingale's motives. It takes away, too, from strong songs by Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater that include "I Can Read You," "Long Past Dreamin'," "Are You on the Bus?" and the thunderously good title tune.
The bones of a very good show are here if only the muscle was toned – or at least moving in one direction. Perhaps just too many layers accreted as the show passed over the years through directors Taylor Hackford to Rob Ashford to now Christopher Ashley.
The hard-sell starts as soon as the audience files into the theater, with a cameraman sweeping over the crowd and broadcasting his images on six screens. There are actors wearing red buttons that say "Rise Up" handing out fake dollar bills. At points during the performance, baskets are shoved into the crowd to retrieve the cash.
The revival meeting feeling continues with metal walkways connecting the stage and audience and even the loss of the theater's best seats to accommodate a ramp thrusting out into the crowd. Further blurring the boundaries, actors sit in the orchestra seats, waving their hands and shrieking with delight. The effect is, oddly, distancing – the opposite of the intention.
The play is mostly set in the drought-stricken town of Sweetwater, Kan., where Nightingale's traveling revival show has been stranded after their bus breaks down. Despite the threat of arrest and fines from the skeptical sheriff, Nightingale decides to put on a three-day event to pray for rain and wheedle money from the townsfolk.
Romantic sparks fly between Nightingale and the sheriff (Phillips), but she worries that her crippled son (Talon Ackerman) is being hoodwinked into believing that the preacher can help him walk again. Meanwhile, the preacher's sister (Kendra Kassebaum) warns him about losing sight of the payday.
In a secondary plotline, the traveling revival show's bookkeeper (Kecia Lewis-Evans) is visited by her son (Leslie Odom), a student at a Bible college who knows a scam when he sees one. He wants his mother and sister (Krystal Joy Brown) to walk with Jesus, not a crook.
Esparza throws himself into the role, finding the vulnerability and self-doubt in his sleazy character even as he prowls the ramps and slithers on his back to sell his lies. Phillips is a cool drink of water in her tight jeans and cowboy boots. She has a beautiful voice and the vocal skills of Lewis-Evans, Odom and Brown are also heavenly.
There are some nifty touches, including choir robes that descend on a rod for the quickest onstage costume changes in Broadway history, a killer duet between Brown and Odom, and the final thrilling scene. The connection between religion and love – leaps of faith, both – is nicely explored.
If only the show itself had enough faith to leap in one direction.
Jeez, even the climactic thunderstorm is a letdown in “Leap of Faith.” You can see the water jets — where’s the fun in that?
Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but nothing happens in this frustrating and manipulative new Broadway musical based on a 1992 Steve Martin movie you don’t see coming a mile away.
What is surprising is how infrequently songs by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) make you sit up and take notice.
Is this the same duo that packed “Sister Act” with tasty disco-pop tunes The composer who wrote the memorable melodies for “Newsies”? It is.
There are some rousing, albeit repetitive, gospel numbers, each accompanied by Sergio Trujillo’s gyrating dancing. And the sweet country-and-Western-flavored “Long Past Dreamin’” is a real keeper. Otherwise, the score is as striking as dust in a drought-ravaged Kansas town.
That’s where phony faith healer Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza, of “Company” and “Arcadia”) and his band of “angels” pitch their tent after a bus breakdown. They’re soon fleecing poor local yokels in their revival meetings.
Enter sheriff Marla McGowan (a likable low-key Jessica Phillips). She’s got Nightingale’s number, but she’s also a lonely widow with a disabled son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), turned on by Jonas and his many sleeveless T-shirts. “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” was a non-issue when Liam Neeson wore the badge on the big screen in 1992.
The sex change is one of several tweaks by Janus Cercone, who wrote the original screenplay, and Warren Leight. Now, Jonas has a sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), and a boo-hoo childhood to lend a shred of psychological background. Unfortunately, there are also too many secondary characters and gaps in logic, such as Jonas’ gang not knowing he’s a con man. Huh?
Director Christopher Ashley has previously done fine work guiding “Memphis” and “All Shook Up.” But he doesn’t get a handle on this production, which he inherited after a 2010 Los Angeles tryout. It feels out of sync.
Ragtag “angels” look so slick that they could’ve come from blowouts and seaweed wraps at a spa. Even the always reliable William Ivey Long has fashioned costumes that are head-scratchers. Kassebaum’s Stevie Nicks-style frock cries out for an exorcism.
As the flimflammer in the mirror-ball jacket at the center of all of this, Esparza is full of the devil. He pushes his vocals to the roof, sometimes squeezing his pipes into Patti LaBelle squeals. He stalks the stage with pursed lips and the look-at-me swagger of Mick Jagger. Esparza goes big, bold and a little buggy, but he’s never boring.
While he’s at it, he joins the roster of con men from better Broadway musicals, including “The Music Man” and “110 in the Shade.” Esparza’s not a miracle worker; he can’t save the show. But he gives it his all, and that rates an amen.
Even if you haven’t caught the movie it’s based on, you can see everything coming a mile away in “Leap of Faith.” The only surprise in this predictable, mushy new Broadway musical is how ridiculously fun it is.
The odds were bad, as the show arrived in a cloud of negative buzz: The original director was ditched in California, along with leading lady Brooke Shields. There were rumors that star Raul Esparza (“Company”) was too sinister as Jonas Nightingale, the sham faith healer played by a convivial Steve Martin in the 1992 film.
And the truth is, he kinda is.
Bamboozling the citizens of a small Kansas town at a raucous tent revival, Esparza’s Jonas, strapped in a stylish black suit, looks like Satan’s little helper.
And yet you can also see why the good people of Sweetwater would so eagerly swallow Jonas’ hooks: He’s got some bright, snazzy lures.
First, our man does appear to have a divine gift for reading his marks. That’s only because his Googling whiz sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), secretly feeds him intel.
But the real reason for his success is that those traveling missionaries bring on some serious showmanship, snappily directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo.
Esparza is a charismatic bandleader, and he tirelessly sells the peppy pop-gospel songs by Disney stalwart Alan Menken and Glenn Slater — the team that also brought us “Sister Act” and its freakishly similar inspirational numbers. A rousing backup choir called the Angels of Mercy helps.
Aside from stick-in-the-mud theatergoers, the only one who remains unconvinced by this high-energy roof-raising is the sheriff, Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips).
This sexy heathen in skintight jeans also happens to be a widow with a young son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), who’s in a wheelchair. Oh, and Sweetwater is experiencing a severe drought. There is zero suspense as to what’s going to happen — Janus Cercone and Warren Leight’s book never strays from the obvious — yet the show manages to be satisfying.
Marla quickly susses out that beneath his sparkly jackets, Jonas is a troubled soul. “Someone, somewhere hurt you bad,” she sings with insight worthy of “The Mentalist.”
Marla isn’t the only obstacle Jonas and his Angels face on the way to their foretold redemption. Another is Isaiah (the fantastic Leslie Odom Jr.), the righteous son of Angels bookkeeper and star belter Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans).
Rest assured that everybody eventually comes around in one way or another. This isn’t a Disney production, but it might as well be.
If there’s a lesson in “Leap of Faith,” it’s that high-energy entertainment is the perfect sweetener: It makes everything go down, whether it’s a rascally preacher or a Broadway musical with a clunky book.
Say amen, somebody. Or, better yet, just whimper the word. We’ve finally come to the end of a hard-run overcrowded spring on Broadway. And here, to sound the final trumpet, is one last musical, a show that appropriately expresses how many a dedicated theatergoer must be feeling right now: plumb tuckered out.
Praise the Lord, and pass the amphetamines. “Leap of Faith,” which opened on Thursday night at the St. James Theater, uses the religious revival meeting as both its subject and its form. Yet reviving (or revivifying or inspiriting) is hardly the right adjective for it. Starring Raúl Esparza and based on the 1992 movie of the same title, “Leap of Faith” is this season’s black hole of musical comedy, sucking the energy out of anyone who gets near it.
That includes its unfortunate cast. It’s not that the ensemble members, directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, don’t work up a sweat, clappin’ their hands and slappin’ their thighs and raisin’ their voices. But you can feel that the force isn’t with them. As its title promises, “Leap of Faith” has a fair amount of leaping. The faith part is another matter.
Featuring songs by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), with a book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, “Leap of Faith” tells the redemptive story of Jonas Nightingale (Mr. Esparza), a con-man evangelist who is forced to re-examine his wicked ways. (Well, maybe it’s a redemptive story; it’s typical of the show’s bad faith that it hedges its bets.)
Jonas (who was portrayed by Steve Martin in the film) is a figure with a long and nobly ignoble ancestry in the theater, the irresistible charlatan. He’s a type whose very existence depends on his ability to charm a crowd, to whip up emotions, to make us suspend disbelief. He is, in other words, showbiz incarnate.
Celebrated variations on this scam artist have been deployed for purposes sentimental (the title characters of “The Music Man” and “The Rainmaker”), cynical (the grandstanding lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago”) and somewhere in between (the leading louts of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). But wherever their hearts lie, these great pretenders can usually be relied on to raise the adrenaline in a room.
If they’re really well portrayed, especially on the stage, they operate on several levels at once, as deceivers (that is, actors) playing deceivers who get caught up in their own deceptions. Such performances leave us dizzy, giddy and feeling darn lucky that we’ve been had.
Mr. Esparza would seem to be a natural for such a part. His onstage energy quotient is usually off the charts. He was terrific as the forked-lightning-tongued studio executive in the 2008 revival of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and, in a more introspective mode, as the commitment-fearing urbanite in John Doyle’s 2006 production of “Company.” Artfully mix traits from each and, in theory, you’d come up with Jonas Nightingale, a self-questioning seller of hope.
Yet here Mr. Esparza seems to keep a chilly distance from his character, and you realize the degree to which self-consciousness has always been a part of his performances. In “Faith” doubt emanates from his every pore, from his contemptuously curled mouth to his fast robotic line readings. This is not, to put it mildly, the right frame of mind for selling religion from a revival tent (designed by Robin Wagner).
The people that Jonas — aided by his manager and kid sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) — is trying to dupe are the citizens of Sweetwater, Kan., a cornfed place crippled by drought and unemployment. Though the townsfolk don’t have much money, Jonas is convinced that he and his choir, the Angels of Mercy (led by Ida Mae Sturdevant, played by Kecia Lewis-Evans) can induce them to pour what little they have into his collection plates.
One hitch, though. There’s a skeptic in Sweetwater, a beautiful woman who has gone for too long without love. Shades of Marian the librarian! But Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips, who looks and acts as if she has just been dry-cleaned) is no book tender but the town sheriff, who has the power to put Jonas in jail.
She also has a 13-year-old son, brave little Jake (Talon Ackerman), who has lost the use of his legs in the car accident that conveniently took the life of Marla’s husband. Jake believes in miracles, and Jake believes in Jonas.
Say, you ain’t buying this guff, are you? Well, maybe you would if anyone onstage seemed to. I still shed a tear or two whenever the 1962 film of “The Music Man,” starring Robert Preston, shows up on television. But “Faith” recycles its clichés without a shred of true conviction.
Its jokes, its romantic scenes, its dance numbers, its interchangeable songs by Mr. Menken (also represented on Broadway this season by the hyper-peppy “Newsies the Musical” ) all feel as if they had been pasted into place the night before. (An example of what passes for wit in Mr. Slater’s lyrics: “Honey, even Helen Keller could see through you.”)
Even the pacing of the show is self-defeating. No sooner does a dance number start to get a groove on — as in “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes” led by the appealing Leslie Odom Jr., and Krystal Joy Brown — than it changes direction and peters out.
Gospel is not Mr. Esparza’s strong suit. When he belts out raise-your-hands invocations to divinity, he sounds like a second-tier Tina Turner impersonator. He at last comes into his own in the show’s penultimate number, the ardently delivered “Jonas’ Soliloquy,” in which he begs, “Give me something to believe in.”
The audience has been silently asking the same thing for the previous two hours. But in “Leap of Faith” that prayer remains unanswered.
Sociocultural theses may be written about the season when Broadway got dead serious about Christianity. Not only do we have earnest, grandiose revivals of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," but here comes a true-believing musical, "Leap of Faith," flat-lined out of the charming and touching 1992 Steve Martin movie about a con man preacher.
The show, which has been surrounded by an assortment of rumors and incarnations since 2006, has arrived in director Christopher Ashley's skimpy, hard-driving production, unsure of its tone and unable to figure out how best to use its star, Raúl Esparza.
The actor -- who has been riveting in everything from "The Rocky Horror Show" to Stephen Sondheim, from TV comedies to Harold Pinter -- is working very hard here. The effort shows. He glowers. He struts. He performs a few strenuous moves a bit too strenuously as Jonas Nightingale, the charlatan and babe magnet who dupes needy Americans with promises of miracles.
How strange that this most charismatic artist suddenly doesn't have the charisma to sell a rainmaker/music man/Elmer Gantry character. Esparza almost seems too smart -- or perhaps just too grown-up -- for the show.
If so, this is hardly his fault. Despite the credentials of the creative team, the country/pop/gospel songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater ("Sister Act") are repetitious and forgettable. We keep being exhorted to "Rise Up" and characters are asked "are you on the bus or off the bus" until the metaphor drives off the road.
When the bus breaks down, Jonas, his kid sister/manager (a nicely hard-edged Kendra Kassebaum) and their Angels of Mercy choir decide to set up tent in poor, drought-stricken, small-town Kansas. The adaptation -- by Janus Cercone, who wrote the book for the movie, and Warren Leight -- conflate Jonas' love interest and the sheriff (Jessica Phillips). She is also the mother of the boy in the wheelchair (the accomplished Talon Ackerman). But the ensemble has too many subplots, almost all of them about daddy issues.
The crisis of faith in Kansas is awkwardly framed with a revival meeting on Broadway a year later. In these scenes, Esparza jokes with the audience. There are live TV monitors and characters in choir robes running up the aisle amid much lapping of elbows. It's one thing for the plot to be about desperate, seedy people. But the show shouldn't feel that way, too.
In the musical production that opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre, a slick con man and serial seducer arrives in a small town, intent on swindling the local folk for all they're worth. He nearly succeeds, but ends up falling for the smart, lonely woman who's on to him.
No, it's not a revival of The Music Man; it's the new Leap of Faith (* * ½ out of four), based on the 1992 film of the same name. And while it's a more imaginative and entertaining film adaptation than another recent Broadway entry, Ghost the Musical, Faith hardly seems destined for the American musical-theater canon.
In the movie, Steve Martin played Jonas Nightingale, a phony preacher who gets stuck with his wily female sidekick in drought-addled Kansas. Conflicts emerge when Jonas and the sidekick develop feelings for, respectively, a jaded waitress and the disapproving town sheriff.
The musical — with a book by original screenwriter Janus Cercone and Side Man playwright Warren Leight— fuses the latter two characters into a female sheriff, Marla, whose son, confined to a wheelchair after a car accident, takes a shine to Jonas. (The boy was the waitress' younger brother on screen, and used leg braces.) The sidekick is now Jonas's sister, and thus shares the troubled family background that led him to a life of fraud; and we learn more about a few of the singing "Angels of Mercy" who abet them.
The show is also set in the present, and begins and ends with Jonas addressing theatergoers, narrating his own tale of sin and redemption. Revival meetings are reflected on TV screens as actors rush through the aisles, chatting and seeking donations. (Funny money is distributed in the orchestra section before the curtain.)
The result is an odd, uneasy mix of souped-up razzle-dazzle and earnest romantic drama, each of which can be affecting at points. Leading man Raul Esparza, one of Broadway's most naturally charismatic performers, gives Jonas a human side to juxtapose his cheesy stage persona; he and Jessica Phillips, as Marla, can actually seem like sensitive, intelligent adults.
Jonas and Marla's unlikely courtship is saddled with some too-cute touches, though. Glenn Slater provides winking, metaphor-laden lyrics for their duets. ("Even Helen Keller could see through you," she sings to him at one point.) The better songs showcase composer Alan Menken's enduring melodic savvy and ability to fold gospel and R&B textures into show tunes with relative grace.
Like many contemporary musicals, Faith ultimately works best as a showcase for its talented cast. The excellent players also include Kecia Lewis-Evans, who as one of Jonas' Angels brings dynamism and dignity to the stock supporting role of big-voiced earth mama. As her grown son and daughter, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Krystal Joy Brown both prove supple singers and fluid dancers.
Their contributions help lift Faith above its uneven aspects and become, if not a rapturous experience, a compelling curiosity.
"Here's the beauty part," brays charismatic evangelist Jonas Nightingale in "Leap of Faith." "If they don't get their miracle, it's their fault; they didn't believe enough." That sentiment handily describes the long-in-gestation musical -- first produced at the Ahmanson in 2010 -- that a motley clutch of producers has ushered into the St. James with a new director, book-writer, choreographer and leading lady in tow. Raul Esparza sizzles like a firecracker in this musicalization of the 1992 Steve Martin pic, but his wick is continually dampened by the pesky book, songs and staging.
While the familiar story could be compelling, as assembled here it's a mass of cliches. The plot tells of Nightingale (Esparza), an itinerant con man, and the small-town Kansas folk he decides to fleece. Mix in a sadder-but-wiser local lass, Marla (Jessica Phillips, in the role played in Los Angeles by Brooke Shields), who sees through him, but allows herself to be wooed, and her young, wheelchair-bound son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), who blindly puts his trust in the visiting ne'er-do-well.
The critical second-act confrontation -- in which the boy's unwavering faith forces Nightingale to confess he's a fraud -- is a close but inferior copy of a scene in "The Music Man" (with a row of tall cornstalks upstage, too). But then, a good deal of the proceedings seem to be ineffective borrowings from a clutch of superior stage musicals.
Alan Menken's score is strong on rhythm but short on distinction, so much so that you can't always tell which songs are reprises. The lyrics by Glenn Slater, Menken's collaborator on "The Little Mermaid" and "Sister Act," are problematic: Here we have Broadway's first known rhyming of "flux" and "sucks," and Slater also has a character describe the sickly Jake with the couplet "something's wrong in his attic; psycho -- what's the word? -- somatic."
Neither director Christopher Ashley nor choreographer Sergio Trujillo (both of "Memphis") adds much to the proceedings, which are overrun by singing and dancing revivalists running through the aisles, boxes and balcony of the theater, importuning audience members to smile for the closed-circuit videocamera, wave their arms and fill donation baskets. The sets and costumes from two of musical comedy's finest designers, Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long, are uncharacteristically ordinary.
All this leaves the admirably hard-working Esparza with a show that is impossible to carry. The few bright spots in the evening are provided by the cast: Phillips, as the lady sheriff who can't resist the bad guy, holds her own, while Ackerman is likable and sympathetic as her son. Singing honors go to Kecia Lewis-Evans (as the big-voiced bookkeeper), along with Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as her grown children. But for all that, this "Leap of Faith" never lands.