Thursday, April 26, 2012

THEATER: Leap of Faith

So stop me if you've heard this one before: according to Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza), the trick behind his revival scam is essentially a two-act set up, in which you promise a miracle so great that the audience will have no choice but to see it through -- and if that miracle never comes, you can blame it on the audience's lack of faith (or charitable donations, or intelligence, etc.). You dazzle them with some fancy, disco-ball-like outfits (designed in this case by William Ivey Long), use the narrow confines of, say, a tent to keep everyone packed together (Robin Wagner's set simulates this by thrusting into the house), and you sing the hell out of every song, until it no longer matters what you're actually singing. (Esparza's meaty growls are perfect for this, though he's well-matched by Leslie Odom, Jr.'s crisp tenor, Krystal Joy Brown's piercing notes, and Jessica Phillips's strong yet wistful tone.)

That's right, folks: it sounds almost as if Leap of Faith is warning us about itself, an act that twists even further in on itself by Warren Leight and Janus Cercone's decision to frame the show as if it's actually part of a revival occurring right here in the St. James Theatre for all of us sinners. And while this new musical isn't without soul and a few moments of thunderous emotion (mostly in the second act), it does feel like a rather calculated act, a plot designed by Christopher Ashley to separate some true Broadway believers from their money. The show is slick when it needs to be sincere (the twee and trick-filled "Like Magic"), polished when it should be rough ("King of Sin," a terrific number despite distracting from Jonas's inner conflict), and full songs from Alan Menken (the similar in spirit Sister Act) that are quickly forgotten, sung as they are by some unfortunately undefined characters. ("Walking Like Daddy," which sounds terrific in the moment, has zero impact, given how little of an introduction -- or conclusion -- is provided for Odom, Jr.'s role as a rival visiting pastor.)

Then again, Broadway is often about smoke and mirrors these days; why penalize Leap of Faith for being so playfully honest about what it's designed to do, particularly when choreographer Sergio Trujillo can make a whole audience bounce along to a song like "Dancin' in the Devil's Shoes" or "Last Chance Salvation." Moreover, it's not all an illusion: Phillips manages to cram elements of the overprotective mother, lonely woman, and distrustful sheriff into the role of Marla McGowan, making sappy songs like "Fox in the Henhouse" tolerable and turning duets like "I Can Read You" into sweet duels. More importantly, she pushes Esparza to constantly top himself, both in scenes and songs, until his climactic, Rose-like turn, "Jonas's Soliloquy," in which our hero attempts to make sense of the miracle he knows his con-artistry can't have possibly conjured up. (Shades of 110 in the Shade come to mind.)

Ultimately, Leap of Faith may have fallen far short of converting and even slightly short of inspiring this member of the audience, but there's enough left here to leave even skeptics with a spring in their step, and that's not so bad.

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