From the much ballyhooed world premiere musical “Leap of Faith,” we learn a couple of key truths.
That Raul Esparza is one of musical theater’s – probably any theater’s – most magnetic and talented actors,
That the present day residents of Sweetwater Kansas are _ at least in the minds of book writers Janus Cercone and Glenn Slater _ the most gullible individuals in this or any other solar system,
That Brooke Shields looks luminous when she’s drenched (please save your “Blue Lagoon” jokes)
That with strong enough faith, even a con man is entitled to a soppy and sloppy happy ending.
Now, a few of these, what, lessons are anything but revelatory, and it’s nonetheless possible to squeeze some enjoyment juice over the gospel beltings of director Rob Ashford’s cast at the Ahmanson where “Leap of Faith” is getting its world premiere.
Do not, however, come expecting a faithful recreation of the much more cynical 1992 movie with Steve Martin in the Esparza role of sham preacher Jonas Nightingale. This, as they say, ain’t that. As scripted by Slater and Cercone (who also wrote the film script), the musical “Faith” is an examination of what people can accomplish when they believe something hard enough. Implied: it also helps when A. you mend your ways and B. a higher power looks down on you with kindness and C. the writers are part of the comfy-closure-or-bust school of big budget musicals.
“Leap of Faith” steals unabashedly from N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” and its musical adaptation “110 in the Shade.” A dying town needs rain; a charlatan arrives and promises – erroneously – that he can open the clouds for the right price. If it’s not quite that cut and dried (or wet) in Sweetwater, Jonas Nightengale will at the very least hold a series of revival meetings in his quickly hastily erected tent and dash off a few feats of amazing.
It’s not just Jonas Nightingale who comes into Sweetwater with the intention of soaking the locals of their hard earned cash. He’s got his choral army of singers and miracle workers. Jonas’s kid sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) runs the technical side of the show, meaning she sits backstage and handles the transfer of key information to Joans via a hidden mike while Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis Evans) handles the music. Ida Mae’s idealistic son Ricky (Leslie Odom Jr.) has returned, prodigal-like, and perhaps to be a preacher in training. He sort of doesn’t like what Jonas and crew seem to be doing. Then he really doesn’t like it.
But, my goodness, it sure helps when everybody in the town is this…amazingly…stupid. The locals tend to hang out in a golden lit cornfield, clumped into balletic Agnes De Mille-ian clusters (Ashford is also the choreographer) like refugees from a sorrowful “Oklahoma” hoedown or staring mournfully at the town’s defunct well. Jonas’s team passes among them and ferrets out the secrets which the preacher will use during his revival meaning to show that he has powers.
Marva (Shields), a tragedy-scarred waitress at the local diner immediately intuits that Jonas is a fake, but she’s attracted to Jonas even though he flat out admits that his intentions aren’t honorable. The aptly named Sheriff Will Braverman (Jarrod Emick) who in this version does not strike up a romance with Jonas’s sister, wants to run the preacher out of town, but this can’t happen until he gets the goods on Jonas, and possibly not even then. So besotted are the Sweetwater-ians with the preacher man’s feats. Complicating matters even further: Marva’s crippled son Boyd (Nicholas Barasch) believes Jonas might have the power to heal him walk again. “I believe you’re the real deal, Rev,” says Boyd.
The role of Marva has been beefed up from the film (the character was played by Lolita Davidovich in the movie), presumably to accommodate Shields’s participation, and the actress cuts an impressive figure: tall, salt of the earth and immeasurably sad. Marva’s repulsion-turned-attraction to a snake like Jonas is pure Hollywood and is completed in the space of two scenes. Presumably, a woman this wary of the organized religion and hucksters, a woman this protective of her son doesn’t let Jonas Nightengale within 10 country miles of her son. But the plot needs a reason for him to stay in Sweetwater beyond a broken down bus, and the show’s got Shields; so Marva’s it. Shields can sing, strongly if not impressively, but “Leap of Faith” requires others do the vocal heavy lifting.
There’s a bit of love/hate crackle between Esparza and Shields, and Ashford has a real discovery in young Nicholas Barasch as Boyd. “Leap of Faith’s” real punch is, not surprisingly, whenever Esparza dons the snappiest of William Ivey Long’s costumes and goes his preacher act. There’s something so very magnetic about this performer, whether he’s playing the snake, the hero or both.
He does not hold back. With Esparza cavorting all over the stage (not into the audience), feeling the power, interacting with the flock, numbers like “Step into the Light” and the first act closer “King of Sin” have some good electricity, and it’s hard not to feel the current. Outside the tent, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater (also the show’s co book writer) use gospel and exclamation point songs whenever possible. So the “make a decision” anthem “Are You On The Bus?” is designed to stop the show. Which, on opening night at least, it very nearly did.
By the time we hear “Are You on the Bus?”, however, we’re in the second act which the makers of “Leap of Faith” have not solved. Unless you literally fell off the turnip truck at the Sweetwater city limits sign, then you will find the representative miracle” upon which “Leap of Faith” hinges to be a joke. But so gullible are these good folks that they’re buying.
So is Boyd whose determination to buck his mom’s doubt to regain his faith and attend that last, miracle-promised meeting (Marva and Jonas both urge him not to) is the play’s best stab at credible conflict, but Cercone and Slater take the easiest and most predictable road to resolution. If you don’t predict every strand of this ending from a mile off, then I’ve got a solid _ if dry _ 100 acres in Sweetwater Kansas to sell you at cost.
Of course if you do journey to Sweetwater via “Leap of Faith” you, like James Taylor, will have seen fire and you will have seen rain. That’s something, I guess.
“Leap of Faith plays 8 p.m. Tue-Fri, 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Oct. 24 at 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$95. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.