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A CurtainUp Review
Leap of Faith

Thank you, for joining us on this, our Revival's third and final glorious night at the St. James Theater. My name is Jonas Nightingale, and as some of you know, tonight is the first time I have preached in over a year now. And I won't lie to you. . . some of the folks in my own choir warned me you New Yorkers are too impatient for a revival. But I told them if you want to save souls, you got to go where the sinners are.
— Jonas Nightingale the charismatic, wired soul saver.
Leap of Faith
Raul Esparza as Jonas Nightingale
The subject of a candidate's faith is very much part of any election campaign. But actors as well as politicians are shouting Hallelujah on Broadway these days. The Book of Mormon, about a group of young missionaries is the hottest musical on the boards. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are back on Broadway. Sex and spirituality wiithin the protective Gothic walls of a church have sold enough tickets for Sister Act outlast its first Mother Superior.

Now, the producers of another faith-themed screen-to-stage musical, Leap of Faith, have banked on the revision by Warren Leight (Tony winning playwright of Side Man) of the book by Janus Cercone (who also scripted the Paramount film), a new director (Christopher Ashley) and its invaluable original star, Raul Esparza to bring it to Broadway. Leight has obviously worked hard to tidy up the messy story, changed and developed some of the characters and create d some site specific tie-ins to get the audience fired up. — but the whole enterprise remains sinfully unconvincing. And, even with the magnetic Esparza on board, singing and dancing up a storm, it will take a heap of ticket buying enthusiasts to make this Revival Meeting leap anywhere near the top of the best selling, long-lived show list.

I never saw the 1992 film with Steve Martin, but I have seen and liked several productions of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt charming 110 in the Shade. I also have vivid recollections of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry (both the book and the terrific film version). Add fond recollections of one of the musical stage's most memorable flim-flammers, The Music Man to explain that I'm not unreceptive to another take on this sort of crowd rousing, sexy flim-flam character. Sadly, Leap of Faith is just a very poor cousin of these stories.

The score by the usually much better Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater is only occasionally rousing from start to finish and emotionally movingf (like Esparza's "Jonas's Soliloqy"). All too often, it's repetitive and too harshly orchestrated. Sergio Trujillo's choreography is equally repetitive. The designers are the same as at the Los Angeles tryout. None are up to their usual top-drawer standards here.

The show begins even before curtain time with some more irritating and corny than fun shtick: Members of the large Leap of Faith chorus roam the aisles trying to get the audience into the Hallelujah mood with hand shakes and Praise the Lord riffs. There's also a man who directs his video camera at the audience so that they can see themselves projected on the large screens at either side of the stage. (Later in the show these screens are used to project closeups of Esparza doing his most wired soul saving numbers which is actually not a bad idea for theatergoers not sitting in prime seats.)

This pre-show warmup did little for this writer except make me wish I hadn't arrived early. The sense being constantly nudged into getting into the revival spirit, continued when the lights dimmed and the large African-American Angels of Mercy chorus came strutting down the aisles. They were joined on stage by Raul's flim-flamming Jonas for the first of many sound-alike, over-miked gospel numbers.

After establishing that this is a site specific revival, the scene shifts from the St. James Theatre for a flashback to a year earlier in Sweetwater, a drought stricken little Kansas town where Jonas and his followers got stuck when their bus broke down. The bus is indicative of the troupe's general state of affairs. In other words, they're so low on cash that the Angels haven't been paid in weeks.

While Jonas's kid sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) thinks they should expand their horizons and instead of hallelujahing the townspeople of small towns out of their limited savings, they should become a more sophisticated, high tech operation, perhaps doing their preaching on cable TV. But Jonas is unwilling to risk exposing himself to the hundreds of people who believe he's wronged them. Instead he sees their breakdown in Sweetwater as a chance to make a big score by convincing the townspeople that they need to be redeemed before the drought can end.

To add conflict theres the local sheriff, Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips) who sees right through the scam operation. But her song "A Fox in the Henhouse" tells him that his "flash and filigree" She unsurprising ends up in his bed. Despite being smitten with the foxy preacher, Marla's determination to put an end to the deceitful prayer meetings is intensified by her need to protect Jake (Talon Ackerman), her wheelchair bound son from getting hurt by false hopes. You see Jake does believe in Jonas and is the deus ex machina for Jonas himself to make that leap of faith.

As if the details about how Jonas and Sam operate their revivals, the jail threatening but romantically embroiled sheriff and the endearing Tiny Tim-like crippled lad weren't enough, there's Isiaah Sturdevant (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the son of Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans), the Chorus's bookkeeper and standard issue big mamma belter. Seems Isiah, a divinity student, who considers himself a real man of God also sees through Jonas.

While all these characters get a chance to speak and occasionally sing, there really aren't any starmaking turns, which includes the main characters.By the time Jonas has made his own inevitable leap of faith and gets his shiny suit all wet from the equally inevitable rainfall, one can only pray that someone is writing a better show for the man who has enriched musicals like Stephen Sondheim's Company as well as straight plays like Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. But while Esparza is a fiercely powerful and attractive performer, he's not a magician which is what it would take to save this show from its mediocrity.

Leap of Faith
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Book: Janus Cercone and Warren Leight based on the 1992 Paramount Picture
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Choreography: Sergio Truillo

Cast: Raoul Esparza (Jonas Nightinggale), Jessica Phillips (Marla McGowan), Kendra Kassebaum ( Sam Nightingale), Kecia Lewis-Evans (Ida Mae Sturdevant), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Isaiah Sturdevant, Ida Mae's clergyman son), Krystal Joy Brown (Ornella Sturdevant), Talon Ackerman (Jake McGowan).
Ensemble: Hettie Barnhill, Kyle Brenn, Ta’Rea Campbell, Michelle Duffy, Lynorris Evans, Manoly Farrell, Dierdre Friel, Bob Gaynor, Lucia Giannetta, Angela Grovey, Louis Hobson, Tiffany Janene Howard, Grasan Kingsberry, Fletcher McTaggart, Maurice Murphy, Ian Paget, Terita Redd, Eliseo Román, Bryce Ryness, Ann Sanders, C.E. Smith, Danny Stiles, Dennis Stowe, Betsy Struxness, Roberta Wall and Virginia Ann Woodruff.

Scenic designer: Robin Wagner
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: John Shivers
Hair designer: Paul Huntley
Make up designer: Angelina Avallone
Orchestrator: Michael Starobin and Joseph Joubert
Music supervisor and vocal/incidental music arranger: Michael Kosarin
Dance music arranger: Zane Mark
Music director: Brent-Alan Huffman
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 intermission
St. James Theater 246 W. 44th Street (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 24th press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Rise Up/Ida Mae, Jonas Nightingalde, Sam, Angels of Mercy
  • Fox in the Henhouse/ Marla McGowan, Jonas
  • Fields of the Lord/Sam, Jonas, Angels of Mercy
  • Step into the Light/Ornella, Jonas, Ida Mae, Angels of Mercy, Townspeople
  • Walking Like Daddy/Isaiah
  • Lost/Ida Mae, Angels of Mercy
  • I Can Read You/ Marla, Jonas
  • Like Magic/ Jake, Jonas
  • I Can Read You (Reprise)/ Sam, Jonas
  • Dancin' In the Devil's Shoes/Isaiah, Ornella,Ida Mae, Angels of Mercy,
  • King of Sin/ Jonas
  • Dancin' In the Devil's Shoes (Reprise)/Isaiah, Ornella,Ida Mae, Angels of Mercy,
Act Two
  • Rise Up/Townsfolk and Angels
  • Long Past Dreamin'/Marla and Jonas
  • Are You On The Bus?/Ornella, Sam, Ida Mae, Isaiha, Jonas
  • s
  • Like Magic (Reprise)/ Jake, Jonas
  • People Like Us/Sam, Marla
  • Last Chance Salvation/Jonas,Angels of Mercy, Townspeople
  • If Your Faith Is Strong Enough/Jonas, Boyd and The Angels
  • Jonas' Soliloquy/Jonas
  • Leap of Faith/Company
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