Thursday, April 12, 2012

theatre review LEAP OF FAITH, Broadway, April 5

The new Broadway musical Leap of Faith is yet another musical based on a movie.  This time the film is the 1992 movie that starred Steve Martin as a con man posing as a preacher who travels with his flock from small town to small town bilking the locals out of their money and skipping town as quickly as he can.  For Broadway, Raul Esparza is playing Jonas Nightingale, the Martin role and Jessica Phillips is the female lead.  We caught an early preview of the show last week. 

The plot is fairly straight forward and nothing that you haven't seen before, as well as one where you can easily predict the outcome.  Once Jonas' bus breaks down in Sweetwater, Kansas, a small rain starved town, he is forced to stay there until the replacement bus part can arrive and he falls for the local widowed female sheriff who has a crippled son.  Can the sheriff change Jonas into an honest man?  Will the boy walk again?  Will the small town ever see rain?  If you answered "no" to any of these questions you've most likely been living under a rock.

Raul Esparza in the L.A. production of the show
Told as a flashback story framed by a revival meeting that Jonas is giving at the actual Broadway theatre the musical is playing at, the framing device doesn't exactly always work and is basically tossed to the side by act two. The beginning and end are also somewhat glossed over with loud choral music sung by the energetic ensemble that gets in the way of having a clear introduction into the flashback part of the story as well as exactly what Jonas did after he left that Sweetwater and ended up at the St. James theatre on Broadway.  The musical did have an out of town tryout in L.A. in 2010 with Esparza and some of the same cast.  I'm not sure if there were other issues with the show that were fixed before it started previews on Broadway, but hopefully the current issues can be resolved before the musical officially opens on April 26th.

Phillips and Esparza in a promo shot
for the show
Raul Esparza is giving yet another of his energetic performances.  It is just too bad that not all of the songs he is given to sing are easy to deliver, with some of the songs having lyrics that are jammed into the score, sometimes setting them up strangely against the music.  Esparza is a very talented singer so hopefully the score issues will be addressed as well.   Phillips is perfect as the town sheriff and protector who is not only watching out for her son but the entire town while at the same time falling for a man even when she knows he is out to do the town wrong.  It is a somewhat difficult part to play but Phillips succeeds.  She has a nice country twang to her delivery and reminded me a lot of Dee Hoty from her Will Rogers Follies and Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public days.

The cast also includes Kendra Kassebaum as Jonas' sister and Kecia Lewis-Evans as the leader of the choir.  Both are fully developed characters, with plenty of moments to add to the plot as well as several moments to show off their signing chops,  Lewis-Evans in particular blows the roof off the theatre at several times in the show.  Also feature is Leslie Odom, Jr. as Lewis-Evan's son as the young man who left the group and came back as a legitimate preacher.  He is a good catalyst for some of the action.  Odom, Jr. is currently co starring on the tv show Smash and it is nice to see him live in a real Broadway show.  Talon Ackerman as Phillip's teenage son is giving a great performance, polished, real and sincere and I am looking forward to seeing a hopefully long career from him in the future.

Kecia Lewis-Evans and Leslie Odom, Jr in the L.A.
production of the show
Composer Alan Menken now has three shows running on Broadway, Newsies, Sister  Act and Leap of Faith  It is just too bad that the score for Leap of Faith is the least polished of the three.  Also, the choral numbers for Sister Act are much better and memorable then the ones in Leap.  Now the character songs are pretty good, including a great one in act two for all of the leads, called "Are You On The Bus?," two good duets for Esparza and Phillips, one in each act, "I Can Read You" and "Long Past Dreamin'" and a great song for Lewis-Evans called "Lost."  Unfortunately Raul's big act two solo called "Jonas' Soliloquy" could be a little better.  Lyricist Glenn Slater has some good lyric rhymes but could work on some of Jonas' songs to make the lyrics fit the music better.

The set design by Robin Wagner includes a revival tent that is built before our eyes as well as a few set pieces that slide on and off.  The set also features ramps and stairs that go out into the audience as well as up into the mezzanine.  But the revival tent set piece is the focus here and moves in various positions throughout the show.  Costumes by William Ivey Long are fine and include a mirrored suit jacket for Jonas to wear at one point.

The show is one of those shows where act two is actually better than act one.  It might be because a lot of what happens in act one is repetitive since we already know at the beginning just who Jonas is so we don't need to keep being told that over and over again.  In the second act we see the changes all of the characters make as well as really have a more emotional connection to the material.  There are also a couple of really nice theatrical moments toward the end of the show that continue on into the curtain call.  So while I was somewhat moved by the last 15 minutes of the show a lot of what came before that was muddy, unfocused with some musical moments that were bland or repetitive.   Hopefully director Christopher Ashley can firm up the issues with the show before it opens in two weeks as there is a good show within the preview performance we saw that with the right bit of editing and work can easily shine through.

But no matter the issue I had with the material, it is Esparza's show, and his energy in the role as well as his interactions with Phillips and the other lead actors, especially with young Ackerman, is excellent and I think he will easily see his fifth Tony nomination for this role if not finally winning a well deserved Tony for this performance.  While on one hand I kinda see this show as equivalent to last years Catch Me If You Can, and like that show it might walk away with a lead Tony win, nothing else and be closed by Labor Day.  But while I liked Catch Me better than Leap of Faith, there is a somewhat more emotional connection to this show and the audience around me was having a great time, so this show might just catch on and have a healthy run.

Official Show Site compilation of behind the scenes interviews and rehearsal performance footage:

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