Andrew Lloyd Webber is not the only one tearing up Broadway these days; Leap of Faith marks the third show (and second to open this season) currently running with a beat provided by Alan Menken. This new musical puts a twist on how musicals are structured by putting the audience right in the center of all of the action - for the St. James Theatre is turned into the latest stop on Pastor Jonas Nightingale’s evangelical tour. Filled with gospel and R&B tracks, soulful performances from the likes of Raúl Esparza and Krystal Joy Brown, simple yet elegant designs, and stand-up-and-clap chorography, Leap of Faith is a surprisingly enjoyable new musical; however, strong vocals does not equal strong acting, as this aspect leaves the audience begging for a miracle all their own.
Based off of the 1992, Steve Martin film of the same name, this original musical looks into the life of a true American con artist, Pastor Jonas Nightingale. Along with a bus full of “believers,” Jonas is forced to set up camp in Sweetwater, Kansas - a town under the watchful eye of Sheriff Marla McGowan. Seeing right through his lies, Marla begs Jonas to pack up his church in a tent and head out on his way; however, her son Jake sees things a bit differently. Jake, while forced to spend his life in a wheelchair, believes in magic … believes in miracles - like being able to walk again or rain to end the drought. Of course, Jonas falls for Marla and Jake and is forced to make some miracles happen … the only trouble is, not even Jonas believes in a miracle. With time pressing down on him, it is u to Jonas to not only find his faith, but the faith of an entire town.
Leading this cast is the multi-talented Raúl Esparza (Arcadia) as Jonas Nightingale. Jonas is an over the top performer with an infectious personality - the crowd cannot help but fall in love with him and his “miracles.” Esparza makes a nice fit into this high energy role; his distinct sound and acting style brings a refreshing twist on the stereotypical evangelist look. Many of Esparza’s faults throughout the piece lie in the romantic chemistry between Jessica Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and himself. Phillips plays headstrong Marla McGowan - the sheriff of Sweetwater who has no time for fun and games, especially with a town drought and a son in a wheelchair. While her powerful voice helps several slow moving ballets along, the relationships between her and the rest of the ensemble were never really formed - not all blame can be placed on her, however, as many of this show’s problems lie within the script itself. Together with original screen writer Janus Cercone, Warren Leight (Side Man) tries to take a simple story and stretch it out into a full hit musical. The result leaves for an uneventful Act I, several drawn out scenes, awkward transitions, and too many never-ending songs. While Cercone and Leight are on the right track, the book is still in need of much improvement - for the story never really hits a stride until the final ten minutes, even with the songs from Alan Menken (the current Newsies and Sister Act) and Glenn Slater (the current Sister Act). Menken and Slater have several hits to their name - all known for their rememberable and touching songs; however, these new gospel and R&B tunes are far from that. Most songs similar to one another - either flashy or slow - and never really advance the plot. The book and songs hinder the great big hit that this group of producers was hoping for.
Fighting against the weakness, is an incredibly talented ensemble, clapping their way through Sergio Trujillo’s (Jersey Boys) quick paced choreography that appeared to be ripped right out of a “How to Dance Like a Gospel Choir” handbook. Taking family talent to a whole new level is the trio of performers playing the Sturdevant family. Playing mamma and daughter are Kecia Lewis-Evans (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Krystal Joy Brown (Hair), respectively. Both women are given the chance to belt their pain away, delivering soulful performances that bring down the house. Mark these following words: “Krystal Joy Brown is going to get her name above the marquee one day!” Adding some brotherly love to the mix is Smash star, Leslie Odom, Jr., who tares up the dance floor with the song “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes.” Also taking some time in the spotlight is Kendra Kassebaum (Wicked) as Jonas’ little sister, Sam. Sam is smart, funny, and charming - all qualities that Kassebaum has no trouble pulling off. Rounding out the featured ensemble is Talon Ackerman (Bonnie & Clyde) as Marla’s little son Jake. Ackerman gives a moving performance as the boy who believes. The whole ensemble works hard to make the audience feel like they are a part of the action … now if only the creative team was on their side.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley (Memphis), this God-bearing musical took too many hits. While the book was choppy and the songs too long, Ashley did the play a huge disservice by trying to force awkward transitions that never really gave the piece a steady flow. Also, Ashley ignored some of the acting problems in hopes that the star name and flashy songs would cover them up; however, it is hard to ignore two trained actors not knowing how to drink alcohol through the entirety of a song. The one thing Ashley did correctly was enlist the help of designers Robin Wagner (Young Frankenstein) for the set, Donald Holder (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) for the lights, and William Ivey Long (Catch Me If You Can) for the costumes. The set was simple, yet transformed the entire space into an evangelist tent within seconds. The bright, bold colors of the set were illuminated by the stunning mix of concert and theatrical lighting used to separate the world of the miracles from real life. And, all was brought together with stunning costume design that transformed the bus full of tired believers into a gospel choir for each evangelical performance.
In the end, this production tells a really simple story with some nice new songs, but overall, much like the town itself, is in need of some water to bring it back to life. Leap of Faith is sure to see every church group in the tri-state area there to worship; however, for the everyday theatre go-er, this new musical will not make you jump out of your seat to yell, “AMEN!”