Leap of Faith
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
May 3, 2012
Leap of Faith, based on a 1992 “dramedy” film with Steve Martin, is a feel-good musical highly reminiscent of The Music Man (with a splash of Sister Act and The Rainmaker). Energetic and with a good heart, it features a charming performance by Raúl Esparza and some terrific dancing, making for a formulaic but enjoyable evening of theatre.
Likeable con man Jonas Nightengale, along with his sister Sam and his traveling ministry (the Angels), descends upon a small Kansas town. Broke, with three days to wait until their bus is repaired and with countless lawsuits and felonies hanging over them, the plan is simple—to pitch a tent, host a three-day revival and take the poor townsfolk, who are consumed with worry about an ongoing drought, for all they are worth. But things get complicated when Jonas instantly falls for Sheriff Marla McGowan. Marla immediately sizes him up as a “fox in the henhouse” and continually, a la The Music Man's Marian Paroo, works her hardest to put a stop to him—despite her obvious attraction to him. Meanwhile, Marla’s 13-year-old wheelchair-bound son Jake is obsessed with Jonas and the revival—he’s certain that Jonas can make him walk again.
When you walk into the St. James Theatre, you walk into Jonas’s NYC Revival—a camera films the audience and projects it live on the many tv screens; it’s noisy and bright and rather tacky (deliberately) and the cast repeatedly passes the basket during the show (don’t worry, Broadway hasn’t resorted to panhandling yet—the program informs us that all proceeds go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS). The story is told, with sporadic audience asides, through this framing device, as though we are at a revival and being told the events from the preceding year.
Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are sufficiently upbeat and peppy (particularly the gospel-style revival numbers) though not particularly memorable. The songs feel awkwardly integrated into the show—30 to 45 seconds before a song begins, we became very aware that the lines being spoken are being underscored by the orchestra, making it very apparent that it’s time for another number; one would hope for more subtle and well-crafted incorporation. Janus Cercone and Warren Leight’s book is equally lacking in nuance, but does certainly highlight the need for, and modern-day dearth of, hope. One blaring inconsistency in the script, however, is that Marla is called an “over-protective mother” yet she tells Jonas that she can’t tell her son what to do and, more so, young Jake is repeatedly wheeling all over town, at night, by himself.
Christopher Ashley’s direction delivers the same feel-good, don’t-think-too-much-about-what’s-going-on, tone: we clap along to songs and are sufficiently engaged and enthused throughout. But the real artistry of the show comes from choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who creates dances that are natural, fun, high-energy and original. The hard-working Angels find so much joy in the movement that it is a pleasure to watch. As my companion remarked, it is hard to, outside of West Side Story, organically incorporate a dance battle into a show—yet Trujillo does just that!
Raúl Esparza is playful and charismatic as Jonas, investing us in the story. Jessica Phillips and Kendra Kassebaum are harder to like as Marla and Sam, respectively, in part because of one-dimensional writing of these characters and in part due to colder stage presences. Kecia Lewis-Evans is a powerhouse as Jonas’s loyal choir leader/bookkeeper Ida Mae—not only is she an all-star singer, but she exudes warmth on stage. Krystal Joy Brown is a dynamic triple threat as Ida Mae’s daughter and Talon Ackerman is suitably empathetic as Jake.
Jonas may be a con, but he recognizes that what people need, even more than rain, is hope. Leap of Faith delivers us this much-needed message. It’s not a brilliant show, but it is a sincere and positive one, and the need for that is not to be underestimated.