We gave it a B
There is nothing new about the new musical Leap of Faith, which just opened at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. A cynic — like perhaps the huckster revivalist preacher at the center of this show — would likely remark that the production was built purely to be a long-running Broadway hit using as many seemingly can’t-miss elements as possible. A flashy theatrical-gospel score composed by household name Alan Menken? Check. An adaptation of a 1992 movie (starring Steve Martin) that isn’t so well known that it overwhelms the show but is known well enough to trade on name recognition? Check. A con-man-comes-to-small-town-and-stumbles-upon-redemption plot redolent of The Music Man (among several others) and given a gloss of 21st century self-awareness? Check. A major Broadway star (i.e. multiple Tony nominee Raúl Esparza) pulling out all the stops in the lead role? Check. A major TV/movie star (i.e. Brooke Shields) in the other above-the-title role who’s out of her depth but will nonetheless win over theatergoers who apparently need a famous face to buy a ticket? Check.
Yes, all the elements are there, and with some tweaks after it concludes its world debut run in L.A. on Oct. 24, Leap of Faith could easily be destined for a lucrative life on the Great White Way. Since the show itself is really about the triumph of sincere belief in the miraculous over the cynical fabrication of it, I’m also rather relieved to report that, miraculously, Leap of Faith mostly manages to rise above its paint-by-numbers framework and deliver a solid evening of musical theater.
With the original feature film’s screenwriter Janus Cercone also writing the book (along with Glenn Slater, who penned the lyrics), the new Faith hews quite close to the story contours of the movie. The bus for a traveling tent revival show breaks down in the drought-plagued Kansas farm town of Sweetwater, and the minister, Jonas Nightingale (Esparza), decides the place is ripe for some pass-the-collection-plate sermonizing. Most in the town buy in quickly, and understandably so. Jonas and his high-energy choir deliver quite the spirit-lifting spectacle thanks to Menken’s to-the-rafters choral melodies — and the nuggets of intel about the townsfolk fed into Jonas’ ear by his pragmatic younger sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum). Two people, however, have the preacher’s number from the moment they see him: Sheriff Will Braverman (Jarrod Emick), who would rather that the town spend its scarce money on drilling for water; and Marva McGowan (Shields), a no-nonsense waitress and widow terrified that her crippled son Boyd (Nicholas Barasch, a sunshiny scene stealer) will get carried away by Jonas’ brand of manufactured hope.
Naturally, Marva and the preacher begin to fall for each other by the third song, a pat ditty called ”I Can Read You” (and yes, the next line is ”like an open book”) that unfortunately exposes the cracks in Shields’ reedy singing voice. I can see why she makes sense for this show, at least in the abstract; she plays world-weary earnestness well, and my goodness, does she look spectacular. But Shields simply isn’t a Broadway belter, and Menken’s score doesn?t cut her any slack.
Shields’ costar, though, fares far better. Esparza rrrrrips into the music with a rock-star growl and a showman’s panache — he’s always interesting to watch. In the big revival numbers, his frenzied energy borders on mania, especially during the penultimate song, ”Jonas’ Soliloquy,” a kind of aria of self-loathing and penitence. The performance at times teeters on the brink of being insufferable, but during the quieter scenes Esparza’s heavy-lidded flash and sarcasm is eased with an offhanded nonchalance and welcome lack of pretension.
He would walk away with the show whole cloth, in fact, if it wasn’t for the liquid-voiced Leslie Odom, Jr. as Ricky Sturdevant, a budding preacher and the son of the director of Jonas’ gospel choir, Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans). Ricky and Ida Mae are the biggest additions to Leap of Faith from the original film, and they prove to be essential to its success. The show’s best song, ”Are You on the Bus?” — a put-up-or-shut-up second act showstopper — is a showcase for most of the cast, but Lewis-Evans and Odom Jr. carry it home with a righteous fury that brings the church fully into Menken’s gospel refrains.
As the show charts its inevitable path to Broadway, its makers should light on more moments like that and forgo the stuffier vestiges of modern musicals. (For a start, I’d dial down director-choreographer Rob Ashford’s rote interstitial ballet numbers, and dirty up Robin Wagner’s generically spare scenic design.) Leap of Faith should heed its title and trust that audiences are eager for more than just standard, worldly pleasures. B
(TICKETS: 213-972-4400 or CenterTheatreGroup.org)