Entertainment :: Theatre

Leap of Faith

by Wickham Boyle
Contributor
Friday May 4, 2012
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Raul Esparza and the ensemble of Leaf of Faith"
Raul Esparza and the ensemble of Leaf of Faith"  (Source: Joan Marcus)

There is currently a religious revival taking place on Broadway, with "Book of Mormon," "Sister Act," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and now "Leap of Faith" at the aptly named St. James Theatre. Perhaps it is the liberal, artsy East Coast answer to the rise of the religious right or just a strange coincidence, but religion is everywhere and it doesn’t always make for a rollicking musical.

Case in point is "Leap of Faith." My first confusion is why lead actor Raul Esparza’s name is above the title as if he were Sting, or Cuba Gooding, Jr.? Esparza is no great performer and the role of the Reverend Jonas Nightingale, a fire and brimstone-breathing, money-grabbing evangelical preacher, requires a star turn if this lackluster musical is ever to find a miracle.

That said, the producers spared no expense in transforming the Saint James into a revival tent with ramps and scaffolding, giant video screens, and a withering diorama of a corn field, all well wrought by veteran designer Robin Wagner.

The costumes by stage giant William Ivy Long are also alternately flashy for the revival staff and dowdy for the townies. But just because you get the visuals right doesn’t mean the book and music fall into place.

The less than wonderful music is by the prolific Alan Menken, with ho-hum lyrics by Glenn Slater. You will not leave humming anything other than "taxi please" in your haste to get home to watch a rerun of "Smash" on TV to get the taste out of your mouth. Menken also wrote "Smash" and even that show’s saccharine plot seems edgy by comparison to "Leap of Faith."

There is a kick-ass choir, chock-a-block full of talent with Krystal Joy Brown as a leading light and her mom, played by mega-voiced Kecia Lewis-Evans.

Here’s the plot. The revival comes to drought-stricken Sweetwater, Kansas because their fancy Mercedes bus breaks down. They pitch their tent and set about bilking rubes out of their last bucks.

Esparza as the Reverend is set upon by Sheriff Marla, played well enough by Jessica Phillips, who of late was the hitting high notes in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert." Marla has a crippled son, Jake, played by the sweet-faced Talon Ackerman, who I am sure will be a more reliable presence when his voice settles.

There is a kick-ass choir, chock-a-block full of talent with Krystal Joy Brown as a leading light and her mom, played by mega-voiced Kecia Lewis-Evans.

For me, the star of the evening was Leslie Odom Jr., who plays, Isaiah, the brother to Ms. Brown. Isaiah is off at real Bible College and returns for a weekend to turn the tent topsy-turvy. When Odom is on stage you cannot take your eyes off him, he magnetizes the audience.

The sheriff and the reverend have a tryst. Brother Isaiah turns the cooked revival books into the authorities. There is a final revival meeting and guess what? Reverend Jonas makes Jake walk and then it rains on stage. The Reverend stays with the sheriff and Isaiah takes over as the minister. Did you see that coming? We all did.

I am not averse to the predictable unfolding before my believing, knowing eyes, I just want it to be done with dazzling music, talent, and voices that can make the paint peel, vibrating with real heart and soul. Sadly, "Leap of Faith" is not that show.

"Leap of Faith" plays an extended run at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. For info or tickets visit http://leapoffaithbroadway.com/

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