Leap of Faith
And on the seventh day, God made Raul Esparza. Unfortunately, even he cannot perform miracles, as proven by Leap of Faith, the latest film-to-musical adaptation to hit Broadway. With songs by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) and a book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, this show is a haphazard hodgepodge of convoluted plot points, caricatures of characters and lackluster gospel music that cannot even be elevated by a dynamic actor like Esparza in the leading role.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, Leap of Faith is based on the 1992 movie of the same name, which starred Steve Martin. It follows traveling con man evangelist Jonas Nightingale, who travels from town to town with his gospel choir, preaching the good word and fleecing the citizens of their money. When his bus breaks down outside of a small town in the Midwest, he seizes the opportunity to take advantage of the townsfolk’s vulnerability. Suffering a drought and desperate for a miracle, Jonas seems to be exactly what they need to boost their spirits and perhaps their crop production. The local sheriff, however, is not a susceptible to Jonas’ charms onstage. (Offstage, and in his hotel room, she seems to be smitten with him quite easily.) The inevitable story of redemption through love and honesty ensues, with numerous big-budget, glittery and above all else, loud, songs thrown in. It’s predictable beyond belief.
There are simply too many characters and plots in Leap of Faith, and because none of them are developed, the audience does not become invested in any of them. There’s Jonas, the slick con man, there’s his younger sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum, wasted in the role), there’s his choir leader Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) who is keeping some sort of dark secret from her children, the reformed wild child Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown) and the stalwart minister-in-training Isaiah who does not trust Jonas (Leslie Odom Jr.). Then there are the residents of the small town (all of whom seem to wear plaid flannel shirts every day) – the widowed mother sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips) who apparently needs to learn how to love again, and her disabled son Jake (Talon Ackerman), who immediately takes an inexplicable liking to the charismatic Jonas.
None of the characters are interesting or warrant much attention or energy from the audience. Jonas is shown in action, whooping up the crowd, but for all of the first act and most of the second, we don’t know what his motivation is. Sam is a faithful sidekick and nothing more. Marla gets a few wistful songs about being lonely, and we see she is the exact stereotype of a workaholic, buttoned up (literally – all of her costumes involve a crisply ironed button-down shirt) woman who has to be taught How To Love Again. Her son is sweet and innocent and nothing more. His faith in Jonas is simply not believable in any way.
Ida Mae’s songs are beautifully sung by Evans but we never learn what exactly it was she sings of lying about. Brown looks stunning in Ornella’s costumes but we don’t know why she stopped partying and joined the choir. And Odom’s superior dancing skills are put to use in “Dancing in the Devil’s Shoes” but again, he has no motivation for his actions. Perhaps to compensate for this lack of effort in the script, the characters walk centerstage and address the audience directly. It does not make up for what is missing from the plot.
And then there’s Esparza, a mesmerizing stage actor who shined in musicals like Company and plays like Arcadia. Sadly, even his charisma cannot elevate this bloated circus tent of a musical. Peppered with songs written in country or Gospel style, Leap of Faith is packed to the brim with noise, set to Sergio Trujillo’s repetitive choreography, but none of it furthers the plot or character development. The one exception is the second act song “Jonas’ Soliloquy,” where Esparza appears to pour all the energy and sincerity that this show does not demand of him otherwise and where he first seems to be an actual human being onstage. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late, as the show ends shortly thereafter. The perfunctory love story between Esparza and Phillips contains no chemistry and almost no conflict, and I found myself rolling my eyes at the tired story of a dishonest man being saved by the love of a Good Woman.
Normally a mesmerizing performer who brims with energy onstage, even when he is sitting still, Esparza’s unique talents are completely wasted in Leap of Faith. A musical starring Esparza bored me? That actually does seem to be a miracle.