“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.