Leap of Faith Review: Unbelievable on Broadway

“Leap of the Faith” is the latest of three Broadway musicals with Alan Menken’s songs; one of five shows featuring religion; one of seven that were originally movies, and one of countless past and present with some fine performances but little point nor purpose.
Even the cast recording of the show, when it’s released, will be one of dozens of albums entitled “Leap of Faith.”
Based on the 1992 movie starring Steve Martin as Jonas Nightingale, a fake faith healer who sees the light, this musical version replaces Martin with Raul Esparza, turns the sheriff into a woman played by Jessica Phillips, and strips away the occasionally satirical tone the film had, replacing it with some odd humor and odder earnestness. The result is a rousing gospel songfest and a story with holes even the faithful cannot leap.
The musical begins and ends as a revival meeting being held in New York City, at the actual theater where the audience is sitting, the (perhaps appropriately named) St. James. The first song, “Rise Up!”, sung by Jonas and the entire cast, promises:

Music that’ll wipe away your blues! Preachin’ that you’ll find you can’t refuse! Though you’re mostly atheists and Jews, You’ll rise up! Rise up!

We are then brought back in time to a road in Kansas, where Jonas and his traveling revival are stranded. Their bus has broken down on their way to fleece the good citizens of Topeka, Kansas, and so they decide to hold a revival meeting instead at the closest town, a drought-ridden economically depressed hamlet ironically called Sweetwater.

Jonas is drawn to a comely resident of the town, Marla (Jessica Phillips). She turns out to be the sheriff, AND the mother of Jake (Talon Ackerman) who is 13 and in a wheelchair, the victim of a car accident that killed Marla’s husband. Marla wants the con man to leave town. But Jake believes in Jonas. And Marla and Jonas are attracted to one another. His interaction with mother and son will eventually lead to a crisis of conscience, a miracle and a 11 o’clock conversion.

Jonas and his entourage are scam artists by trade, and have been conning the poor and the faithful out of their money for years. We are given glimpses of their techniques – gaining intelligence on individuals who attend the revival meetings, with Sam, Jonas’s sister (Kendra Kassebaum), feeding him information on each one via an earpiece; offering a wheelchair to a woman who doesn’t need one, so that the audience will think when Jonas later lifts her from the chair that he’s effected a miracle.

Yet there is a fight between Nightingale’s bookkeeper, Ida Mae, and Ida Mae’s son, Isaiah, a student of a Bible college, over the ethics of the Nightingale operation, and the audience is apparently meant to side with earthy mother Ida Mae against nerdy eyeglass-wearing Isaiah. “I had to clean houses for twenty years to support his empty church,” Ida Mae says to Isaiah, talking about Isaiah’s father. “Is that the kind of man you want to be?”

So the obvious answer is to keep two sets of books for a con artist? The reason these two characters even exist, I suspect, is because they are played by two performers blessed with powerhouse gospel voices, Kecia Lewis-Evans (Chicago, The Drowsy Chaperone, etc.) as the mother and, as the son, Leslie Odom Jr, who also plays the love interest of Tom (Christian Borle) on the TV series Smash.

These are just two of a large and thoroughly professional cast. Raul Esparza (Company, Arcadia) has a strong voice and real acting chops, although he plays the role too straight-laced for my taste. Talon Ackerman, the kid in the wheelchair, is good enough to be scary, and this is not even his Broadway debut; he was Young Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde.

None of the performers can be faulted. But can any of them make us believe? Does anybody believe that “Leap of Faith” is trying to convert all of us atheists and Jews in the audience? It’s an ersatz experience, emotionally and musically. Menken’s 17 appealing songs (Including three show-stoppers, “Step Into the Light,” “Are You on the Bus?” and “Leap of Faith”) are mostly good, ersatz gospel music. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is mostly energetic swaying in gospel robes, which mimic the movements of an actual gospel choir. (The set, mostly a rotating revival tent, is as fake as the story.) What is real are some of the dollars they take from the audience when passing around the collection baskets. (A note in the program informs us that the money collected will be donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) Should lovers of gospel music pay $100+ to see “Leap of Faith?” Why not? But they could have the authentic gospel experience at one of the many churches in New York City with gospel choirs. And if they are not comfortable going to church, they can attend one of the city’s many gospel brunches

Leap of Faith St. James Theater Book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight; Lyrics by Glenn Slater; Music by Alan Menken; Musical Director: Brent-Alan Huffman Directed by Christopher Ashley Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; Scenic Design by Robin Wagner; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Don Holder; Sound Design by John Shivers; Hair and Wig Design by Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design by Angelina Avallone; Cast: Raúl Esparza as Jonas Nightingale, Jessica Phillips as Marla Humes, Kendra Kassebaum as Sam Nightingale, Kecia Lewis-Evans as Ida Mae Robinson, Leslie Odom, Jr. as Isaiah Robinson, Krystal Joy Brown as Ornella, Talon Ackerman as Jake Humes. Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission Ticket prices: $47 to $132. Premium seats as high as $252.

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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