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I share the same love-hate relationship that most of us have with theater critics. I’ve joined in on their praise and shared their scorn, but with Leap of Faith, I’m still not sure if they saw the same show that I saw.
The musical adaptation of the 1992 Steve Martin film took a critical pounding when it opened recently at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote Leap was “this season’s black hole of a musical comedy, sucking the energy out of anyone who gets near it.” Robert Feldberg of NorthJersey.com added to his dismay when he wrote, “Leap of Faith attempts entertainment by manipulation, but you can see the wires all they way.”
Both Brantley and Feldberg have a right to their opinions, but I happened to have enjoyed Leap. Apparently, others must’ve also, because it was just nominated for Best Musical at this year's Tonys.
Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza) comes to Sweetwater, Kansas with his revival. Marla (Jessica Phillips) is the town’s sheriff whose son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), is currently wheelchair bound due to the same car accident that also killed his father.
Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), Jonas’s sister, feels that Jake could bring in more donations to help save their failing revival. Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) takes care of Jonas’s books. Isaiah (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Ida Mae’s son, joins her and his sister, Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown), at their latest stop, but questions Jonas’s theatrical approach to spreading the good word.
Marla begins to suspect Jonas is trying to take advantage of the plights of the locals and exploit her son. Jake believes that Jonas will help him walk again. Jonas, himself, begins to wonder if his faith is genuine or part of his act.
I remember how Esparza stole the show from Jeremy Piven in the 2008 revival of David Mamet’s Speed the Plow. Esparza’s expert skills as a dancer and singer are not the only reasons why his name is on this show’s marquee. There’s also his emotionally complex and surprisingly humane portrait of Jonas which should’ve earned him a nomination for Best Actor in a Musical at this year’s Tonys.
Phillips also successfully avoids a one-note approach to her role and is especially memorable in her scenes with Ackerman. Lewis-Evans doesn’t just raise the roof, but blows it right off with her first note and is a continuous, vibrant presence each time she’s on the stage. Ackerman is one talented young actor with a big future ahead of him. Odom. Jr., Brown and Kassebaum all have strong supporting roles, and get a chance to shine in various numbers.
The ensemble is filled with enormously talented dancers who never hit a bad note or tired out from Sergio Trujillo’s energetic choreography. These factors alone should dispel the notion of the appearance of a black hole at the Theatre.
Oscar winning composer Alan Menken and Grammy Award winner lyricist Glen Slater’s blend of gospel and rock had the audience clapping their hands and tapping their toes from beginning to end. Christopher Ashley’s direction is assured and solid with both the musical and non-musical moments.
Janus Cercone, who co-adapted from her original screenplay, and Warren Leight’s book has some funny one-liners and touching moments, but I would’ve liked to have seen more sections where Jonas talks to the audience about his plight to get a better sense of his inner turmoil.
Audiences are smart enough to tell the difference between a show that entertains and one that wants to entertain. This was evident by the tremendous standing ovation that the cast received at the end of the show which would’ve never happened if we felt manipulated by anyone involved.
Shows such as Mamma Mia! and Memphis didn’t get the best reviews when they premiered, but they’re still around and doing brisk business. Hopefully, Leap of Faith will join them and become another word of mouth favorite through its audiences.
Leap of Faith is now playing at the St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036.