Broadway Theater Review: LEAP OF FAITH (St. James Theater)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on April 27, 2012

in Theater-New York

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Americans love popular stories of miracles and redemption. And really, who doesn’t? Few things are more gratifying than God taking time out of His schedule to break all the rules of Nature, which He created, just to do you a favor. How uplifting is a tale of a corrupted soul that undergoes a catharsis and becomes pure once more? Who among us didn’t get shivers when Darth Vader lifted up the Emperor and tossed him down that chute? Pop stories of redemption and miracles make for seductive entertainment, not least because they let us connect with the spiritual in a carefree and enjoyable way.

Broadway Theater Review by Dmitry Zvonkov - Leap of Faith with Raúl Esparza – directed by Christopher Ashley – at the St. James TheatreIn the Broadway musical Leap of Faith (based on the 1992 motion picture of the same name) Jonas Nightingale (Raúl Esparza) is a charming con man posing as a preacher/faith-healer, who travels the country with his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) and a revival choir, setting up his tents in Christian communities where he fools the ignorant faithful into giving him money with promises of miracles big and small. When their choir bus breaks down in a poor backwater town and Jonas find himself broke, he decides to put on a show and fleece the populace. Not so fast Jonas (!), because here comes Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips) the town sheriff. She is wise to Jonas’s little scam and urges him to leave, threatening, among other things, to fine him for zoning violations. Ah, but there is a spark between them….

Broadway Theater Review by Dmitry Zvonkov - Leap of Faith with Raúl Esparza – directed by Christopher Ashley – at the St. James TheatreAdd to this Marla’s wheelchair-ridden son; a drought; the righteous son of a preacher; and his loving but pragmatic mother and floozy sister, and we have ourselves the makings of an inspirational story. Will Jonas go through with defrauding the poor, simple townsfolk? Or will he find faith, love, and redemption? Will he and the sheriff get together? Or will she fine him for setting up his tent without a permit? Will the crippled boy Jake (Talon Ackerman) walk again? Will the drought ever end? I would say see the show to find out except that none of it really matters.

Broadway Theater Review by Dmitry Zvonkov - Leap of Faith with Raúl Esparza – directed by Christopher Ashley – at the St. James TheatreFrom the very beginning everything that happens to the characters in Leap of Faith (as directed by Christopher Ashley) has the sense of a foregone conclusion, as though everyone involved knows how it’s all going to end and, with one notable exception, no one is very concerned. Rather than evolving dramatically, the story is a series of vacuous scenes tied together with a stifling amount of redundant exposition. The stakes feel small, the consequences trivial. In part this is due to the flaccid writing (book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight), but the bigger problem is Mr. Ashley’s directing. Besides being dull and unimaginative, it fails to draw from the actors that sense of reality and urgency that is so necessary for us to care about them. The characters aren’t worried about what’s happening to them, and they aren’t moved by it. Neither are we.

A prerequisite for a successful dramatic work is that it be engaging. This is especially true for a fluffy, feel-good show like this one, where there is no serious underlying theme or any philosophical or artistic conceit. But when the characters and their problems don’t feel real, immediate, or serious, our attention is lost and so is our suspension of disbelief. Then it becomes just a bunch of (in this case very skilled and talented) people talking, singing, and dancing on a stage.

Broadway Theater Review by Dmitry Zvonkov - Leap of Faith with Raúl Esparza – directed by Christopher Ashley – at the St. James TheatreThe legendary Raúl Esparza was relaxed to the point of casual. He appeared to be trying to have fun, to entertain, but there was a lack of focus and dynamism to his performance. The beautiful, statuesque, and vocally endowed Ms. Phillips looks to be straight out of a slick TV crime drama and is unbelievable as the sheriff of some hick town, or even its Broadway-musical version. The one truly compelling performance was given by Kecia Lewis-Evans in her portrayal of Ida Mae Sturdevant, the choir bookkeeper and head of the chorus. Ms. Lewis-Evans was present, as they say. The problems around her character were real and serious. There was a rich living world behind her eyes; when most of the other actors spent a lot of their time indicating to us what was happening, Ms. Lewis-Evans was living it. And her singing is truly something to hear.

Broadway Theater Review by Dmitry Zvonkov - Leap of Faith with Raúl Esparza – directed by Christopher Ashley – at the St. James TheatreIn general the musical numbers were entertaining, mostly due to Alan Menken’s compositions and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography. Unfortunately, as with much of the dialogue, the lyrics by Glenn Slater were redundant; I cannot recall one song that told us something that we did not already know. The set design and costumes (Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long respectively) were serviceable, though uninspired, suffering from the same lack of imagination as the rest of the production.

Watching this show I found myself reflecting on the enormous amount of work and talent up on that stage. I would love to see these performers in something truly well-written and directed with flair and theatricality. It’s ironic that the true leap of faith at the St. James Theatre will be on the part of the audience: spectators who still have a willingness to believe that this underwhelming show is a great Broadway musical are as gullible as a drought-ridden town that puts its faith in a confidence man.

photos by Joan Marcus

Leap of Faith
on Broadway at the St. James Theater
tickets on sale through September 30 at time of publication
for tickets, visit  http://leapoffaithbroadway.com/

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris Scordo April 29, 2012 at 4:04 am

Dropping Brooke Shields from the successful version in LA was an epic fail on the part of the producers. I guess that they wanted Esparza to have the limelight to himself, which is exactly what this show teaches us is wrong. Congratulations Brooke! I hope you feel some vindication. The producers should not have lost faith in you.

I live in the theatre district neighborhood and I have seen Brooke after every show she does, stand out in the cold and rain until everly last fan who wants an autograph, gets an autograph, while stars like Katie Cruise, and Mathew Broderick dismiss them. That is a testiment to Brookes character, her heart and humanity. Ironically the exact qualities and values this show is supposed to be about but somehow the show and its producers lost on their way from LA to NY; perhaps in some small town in America.
Chris Scordo 418 West 49th 3b, New York, NY 10019

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