Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leap of Faith: Holy Cornpone on the Great White Way

Leap of Faith* brings you Raúl Esparza in LEATHER PANTS making the ceiling quake with his heavenly voice.  So that's your upside and it's a good one at that.  Hold onto it and treasure it like a precious gem.  This production with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, and directed by Christopher Ashley otherwise is a challenge with a weak book, Gospel tinged musical numbers, and overall uneven tone and pace.

Based on the 1992 film, Leap of Faith is set in a traveling religious revival group led by Rev. Jonas Nightingale (Esparza) who with his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) con people out of money.  They are assisted by singer-bookkeeper Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) and her daughter Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown).  Later Ida Mae is joined on the road by her Bible-college educated son Isaiah (Leslie Odom Jr.) who is suspicious of the good Reverend.  Also suspicious from the start is local sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips) who tries to run Nightingale out of town before he has even set up shop.  Lured in by his irresistible charms, she gives into his temptations but with the understanding this will be a short visit and he will move on.  Moreover, he is not to encourage her wheelchair bound son Jake (Talon Ackerman) who has faith that Jonas can heal him.

It's a messy story and, I'll be honest, not my favorite setting.  I didn't want to be in the dust bowl Kansas town it is set in for more than I had to be (and the clunky set, heavy on "metal," made it even less inviting).  The gospel music is also not my cuppa.  So a lot of things in this show work against my taste.  I prefer a little edge and the show tries to have one (and thinks it has one) but at it's heart it's a gooey, sweet center. 

The first Act was slow and plodding.  Focused far too much on the revival and reliant on the gospel ensemble numbers, I found myself bored.  I could not tell if it was direction or performance that was the issue, but Esparza ends up playing Jonas's charisma as wolfish--he seems to make love to everyone and everything (Hello tent, I think you are sexy.  Hello religious gathering, I think you are sexy.  Hello chair, I think you are sexy.  Hello sister, I think you are sexy.  Whoops.)  This all leads to a song called "Fox in the Henhouse"...What evils did I do in a former life to have to hear that!?  I was so confused by Esparza being sexy with everyone that I thought there would be a subplot about him possibly being Isaiah's father (which makes no sense if you look at the age of the actors but frankly it seemed plausible in how it was staged).

The moment the first Act perks up is when the romance is dialed up between Jonas and Marla. They sing a great duet "I Can Read You" (musically very similar to the "Fox in the Henhouse" but at least this song gives more light to the characters).   The burgeoning romance between these two might be wholly out of character for the Marla we have been introduced to but it is a welcome respite.   It's still an unbelievable set-up (local sheriff wants him out of town but lets him stay for a bit, sleeps with him, but then keeps trying to arrest him).  But with her gorgeous Second Act ballad "Long Past Dreamin'," there is a little more clarity about her backstory and her internal struggles over her romantic dilemma.  Jonas too gets to be more vulnerable and open with her.  When there is some character development it can lead to engaging songs, in particular, the great duet between Marla and Sam "People Like Us." 

The most successful aspect of the show for me is the dramatic tension Esparza creates in the dynamic between Jonas, Marla and Jake.  Jonas legitimately likes Jake and knows his con artist game could hurt him (and consequently Marla).  But he also knows his entire crew including his sister depends on him to pull off the con.  Esparza convincingly plays this struggle and fear of hurting two parties he cares about.  He seems truly invested in Jake and even a little sad that his cons keep him disconnected from people.

His big eleven o'clock number, "Jonas' Soliloquy" is where it all comes together and it's a worthy showstopper from this Broadway star.  It's a glimpse of Raúl getting to be Raúl.  He sings his heart out in a song that lifts the entire audience up to the rafters and beyond.  The set for that song is simply a starry black sky: a beautifully staged moment worth savoring.  I just wish the rest of the show was as clear and sharp as this one moment is.  Phillips has a difficult job.  Her role is a challenge to make believable and she tries but I still had a hard time buying the transformation from hardass to love interest.  She and Esparza have a great scene after Long Past Dreamin' but these successful scenes alone could not carry the rest of the show.

Sadly the show is a muddle of too many ideas, themes, and action.  There is a significant story line about Ida Mae, Isaiah and Ornella but most of the time it felt wholly separate from Jonas's story.  This subplot includes a number of songs that don't do much for the larger plot or even to give background on these characters in any meaningful way.  It's too bad because all three performers are terrific.  Leslie Odom Jr. has a gorgeous voice and is a talented dancer.  I wanted him to have more stage time but the two plots are just too disconnected musically, narratively and emotionally. 

There are some talented people in this cast (Kassebaum included) but the material doesn't gel.  That said, an audience primed for sweet-ish, "family" entertainment would eat this up and in fact both times I have seen the show the audience was hungry for more (I heard audience members shout out to the characters during the show--that's how engaged they really were). 

I want to see Esparza in a great musical role.  Alas, my prayers were not answered.

*I paid for one ticket to an early preview and received a complementary ticket to the frozen show.


  1. I think the show would have been more interesting if they explored the sexual tension between Jonas and his sister.

  2. A great 11 o'clock number does not a musical make...