“Leap of Faith”

In a nutshell, the new musical Leap of Faith is ultimately The Music Man meets 110 in the Shade in a revival tent. The show is not quite the train wreck that word of mouth might have you believe, as there are a many good things on stage (namely the exceptional cast). However, by journey’s end I was left feeling that something was missing. It’s more disappointing to me that with all that talent on stage and off Leap of Faith isn’t a more tremendous experience. I have never seen the 1992 Steve Martin film on which the show is based, but that’s neither here nor there. A shyster evangelist finds himself stranded in a town and sets to work conning the folks suffering for lack of rain. One woman in the town (here also the sheriff) has doubts, as well as a paralyzed son. On the third day, things come to a head.

The show is anchored by its dynamic leading man, Raul Esparza, who carried the evening on his shoulders. Jonas Nightingale, the cynical shyster evangelist is a tough-sell anti-hero but Esparza is more than game, creating in a memorable and energetic star turn. Jessica Phillips has beauty and heart, as well as a lovely voice as Marla, the Town Sheriff and Jonas’ love interest. The divine Kecia Lewis-Evans is so good and sings so thrillingly as Ida Mae, I want to see her above the title in her own Broadway show. Leslie Odom Jr and Krystal Joy Brown bring remarkable voice and presence as her children, often leading the spirited ensemble pieces. Rounding out the principal cast are Kendra Kassebaum and Talon Ackerman, who aren’t given much in the way of songs or fully realized characters.

Alan Menken, now with three shows running currently on Broadway, wrote the music while Glenn Slater wrote the lyrics. Mr. Menken has a field day with the gospel infused revival numbers (especially anything that Lewis-Evans sings) but the show has so many of them that they begin to run together.  Some of the lyrics, such as the lead-in verse to “People Like Us,” are just awful. Mr. Slater’s other lyrics may not be as terrible, but they build on cliches and lack imagination. The unimaginatively titled “Jonas’ Soliloquy” allows Esparza to really sock home the eleven o’clock spot, but the song lacks the distinction that makes other such powerhouse moments (eg. “Rose’s Turn” or “Lot’s Wife”) so indelible.

Robin Wagner’s scenery is disappointingly realistic and unimaginative (nothing says “Broadway musical” like a gas station) while William Ivey Long has come up with some eye-popping choir robes for the Angels of Mercy, as well as Jonas’ mirror jacket. The book, by Janus Cercone (also the film’s screenwriter) and Warren Leight, doesn’t quite know what to make of itself. The structure smacks of desperation; the conceit of setting the musical at the St. James feels rushed and uncertain. So much of what is written feels like tired tropes, both in plot and character. I don’t know if the show can be saved, but I think the authors should continue to work on it as they have the potential for an even better show to take out on tour. Or perhaps, this is one for the Times Square Church.

At Large Elsewhere: The “Newsies” Walking Tour

Many of my blog and twitter friends have been quite abuzz with excitement for the stage adaptation of Newsies, which had its world premiere last fall at the Paper Mill Playhouse and will make its Broadway berth at the Nederlander Theatre later this month. The Disney show is currently scheduled as a 12 week limited engagement (and I’m Joseph Pulitzer) running through Tony Sunday, featuring much of the cast from the New Jersey run.

I must confess, I have never seen Newsies, nor have I ever heard an entire song from the score (film or stage). Apparently I was never home while the film was being shown on TV (where it apparently aired a lot) and we’ve somehow missed each other these last 20 years. The first time I saw Christian Bale onscreen was in American Psycho, so I was surprised to learn that he had headlined a musical, period. That being said, when my pals Patty and Emily put out a request for friends to help them film their latest project, the second in a series of Newsies related videos, I figured, “What the hell?”

I still know very little about Newsies, except that Patrick’s Mother is a Very Important Character. However, that didn’t curb my enjoyment of the four hours I spent roaming lower Manhattan with this motley crew.

Here is the Newsies walking tour (which, incidentally, costs $18.99. Cash only. Exact change). Enjoy.


“Sister Act”

One thing that surprised me about Sister Act: The Divine Musical Comedy (that’s some billing) is that it’s rather entertaining. The new musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film wants you to have a good time and pulls out every possible stop to do so. However, it’s also not very good; a by-the-numbers screen to stage adaptation lacking inspiration. Not everything is terrible, the show moves the action to late 70s Philadelphia and makes some concerted effort to be different from its source; but it’s the effort shows at almost every turn.

The show makes its inevitable appearance on Broadway after runs in Atlanta, the Pasadena Playhouse and most recently in London. The original book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner has been spiced up for Broadway by Douglas Carter Beane (and you can pretty much call Beane’s lines as you hear them). The book’s structure speaks to the second or third tier Golden Age musicals of the ’50s & ’60s. The dialogue creaks, some of the lines are just cheap (Deloris’ “going incognegro” stands out among the worst) and there is a preference for style over substance. These moments can be elevated or overlooked on account of the stellar cast, led by newcomer Patina Miller as Deloris.

Director Jerry Zaks has given the show a fluid pace, while Anthony van Laast’s generic 70s choreography fails to make a lasting impression. Lez Brotherston has designed the costumes, coming up with one exceedingly gaudy variation on a habit after another (and probably used up all the sequins in New York). However, it seems that no one on the creative team had an idea what a nun was like except from what they learned from The Sound of Music, and that showed in the way they were portrayed (with one notable exception, more on that later).

Ms. Miller is quite a find; a real triple threat with charm, poise and exceptional beauty. There is instant likability, and the star takes a more sincere and less sassy approach to Deloris than one would expect from the film. In the spirit of empowerment, she teaches her nuns to stand up to Mother Superior, but simultaneously discovers her self-worth. It’s a breakthrough performance, and we’re bound to see a lot more of Patina through the years, but the role as written doesn’t quite let her soar through the stratosphere as it should. She tears into her numbers with aplomb and style, particularly “Fabulous Baby,” but she is at her most effective and most appealing in the eleven o’clock spot, the title song.

The production’s hidden asset is none other than Tony-winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) as Mother Superior. In a role that could easily be a cardboard cutout of austere authority, Ms. Clark grounds the entire production with a fully realized character, and the most honest, compelling performance onstage at the Broadway Theatre. The re-conception of the role was enough to warrant a second solo spot for Mother Superior in the second which offers the character a chance to express her crisis of faith. While I’d prefer to see the soprano as the Reverend Mother in that other aforementioned musical with nuns, it’s just a pleasure having Ms. Clark back on Broadway where she belongs.

Audrie Neenan scores major laughs channeling Mary Wickes as Sr. Mary Lazarus, Marla Mindelle gets to belt it to the rafters as Sr. Mary Robert. Chester Gregory plays “Sweatie Eddie,” the Philly cop assigned to Deloris (and in a more interesting creative stroke, the librettists gave him a backstory with Deloris, including an unrequited crush). Gregory is a major talent, but his number “I Could Be That Guy” doesn’t suit his ability (though it contains the most impressive quick changes in the show). Fred Applegate is always a delight, here playing eager Monsignor O’Hara.

One of the charms of the original film was the way existing Motown standards were adapted for the nun’s choir (also it was fun seeing old Broadway pros like Susan Johnson, Ruth Kobart and Beth Fowler among the singing nuns). This new original score is mostly charmless, occasionally awful and mostly unmemorable. It’s a mixed bag of disco pastiche and typically Menkenesque power ballads. The show is at its worst with songs like “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and the disgusting “Lady in the Long Black Dress” (three thugs sing about seducing nuns). The song most likely to be hummed as you leave the theatre is the opening “Take Me to Heaven” which is given the Golden Age treatment of multiple reprises throughout the show. “The Life I Never Led” feels like something written for and rejected from any of the animated films Menken has scored in the last twenty years.

Broadway has a new middle of the road crowd-pleaser on its hands. Sister Act is destined to do well among tourists and I imagine its success in New York will surpass that of London. I just wish the entire production was as flawless as Ms. Clark.