Based on the largely forgotten 1992 movie, Leap of Faith leapt into town due to the availability of the prestigious St James Theater and the perceived lack of competition for Best Musical. What they really needed was a leap of improvement.
With the pedigree of talent involved, a vastly more polished and, heaven forbid, entertaining musical should have easily been possible. Despite longer than usual out of town tryouts and plenty of tweaking and trimming, the show is a predictable, derivative mess. A hodge-podge of messy writing and staging, it will be interesting to see whether it is drummed off stage as quickly as previous St James tenant On A Clear Day You Can See Forever or whether it somehow stages a miracle of its own to come good by April 26, its official opening night.
Director Christopher Ashley (Xanadu) has attempted to whip the cast into an energetic frenzy, but this just makes the lethargic response of the audience all the more noticeable. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) has provided some suitably gospel-inspired moves that provide a modicum of welcome relief from the tedium of the script. The pair have certainly not recreated the theatrical magic and audience delight of their previous success Memphis.
Even more incomprehensible is the work by legendary designers Robin Wagner (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes). These men have previously created such witty, delectable delights as The Producers and Crazy for You. The somewhat impressive revival tent sits before either a cyclorama or a star cloth, the type of back drops favoured by high school musicals performed in gymnasiums. Such is the unimaginative dreariness of the costumes, I would not have believed that Long was involved had his name not been printed in the program (and to think I so recently sang his praises so effusively here).
Placing members of the band in the two Juliet boxes is a nice immersive touch. Completely unnecessary, however, is the use of a live video camera which outputs to four tv panels, which are far too small and unclear to display anything of use or interest.
With Leap of Faith joining Newsies and Sister Act, composer Alan Menken joins an elite club now having three musicals running concurrently on Broadway (Andrew Lloyd is also currently in that club with Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar joining megahit The Phantom of the Opera). Menken offers a couple of memorable songs in act two but the proliferation of gospel choir numbers, particularly in act one, blend together and, worse, grind progress of the show to a halt.
Magnetic actor Raul Esparza will no doubt walk away from the project unscathed. His singing and energy are strong, although he is difficult to understand when speaking in the hand held mike. The role of conman/preacher Jonas Nightingale is, unfortunately, watered down to basically a charming guy who has a shady background we only hear about, robbing top actor Esparza of a meatier role. The only conflict for the audience is how a seemingly nice guy did some of the things he is meant to have done.
Marla McGowan, played by Jessica Phillips, has graduated from waitress to Lord High Everything Else, acting as the town sheriff, zoning commissioner etc. Phillips sings well, her act two ballad “Long Past Dreamin’ ” is a true highlight, but her ‘romance’ with Jonas is dead on arrival, with a dearth of chemistry between the two leads.
Kendra Kassebaum plays Jonas’ loyal sister Sam Nightingale, the voice in his ear at the revival meetings. It’s odd that she plays a crew member in jeans and black t-shirt while still wearing her Glinda hair.
Kecia Lewis-Evans, as choir leader Ida Mae Sturdevant, and Leslie Odom Jr (Smash) and Krystal Joy Brown as her children Isaiah and Ornella sing up a storm, making the most of their material. Young actor Talon Ackerman gives a committed performance, avoiding the mawkishness of wheelchair-bound Jake’s inevitable miracle as much as possible.
There is a great, although, again, quite predictable, special effect ‘miracle’ at the end of the show. Esparza’s performance of the 11 o’clock number “Jonas’ Soliloquy”, coming between the two climactic miracles, grounds the evening and brings the show to as strong a close as possible.
Leap of Faith officially opens 26 April 2012 for an open ended run.
Reviewed 2pm Saturday 8 April 2012 at Broadway’s St James Theater.
Photos: Bruce Glikas