Friday, April 27, 2012

A Leap Too Far

Leap of Faith, the new musical at the St. James Theatre, is far too insistent, like a spoiled child demanding attention:  “Look at me!  Adore me!  Believe in me!”

Well I looked, but I didn’t adore, and, more importantly, I didn’t believe. 

My fault if the show fails, I suppose.  For Jonas Nightingale, the preacher man up there on stage, tells me that if the miracle doesn’t happen, it’s because I just didn’t show enough faith.  

Maybe that’s why, even before the show begins, members of the cast circulate among the audience and encourage (“badger” is more like it) them into throwing their hands into the air and shouting a series of loud and collective “Hallelujahs.”  I felt like a Who in Whoville being pressed into joining the collective shout-out in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who (though the stakes are not nearly as high, except, perhaps, for the investors.)

The (not very) Reverend Nightingale (like that’s his real name!) is one of those theatrical con artists, styled after Harold Hill (The Music Man) or Starbuck (The Rainmaker, or 110 In The Shade if you prefer).  He swoops into town, charms the gullible folks out of their last dime, and then disappears one step ahead of the sheriff. 

In the case of Leap of Faith, the rubes are the inhabitants of Sweetwater, Kansas, a place of quiet desperation that is drying up due to a lack of employment opportunity, not to mention rain.  Nightingale and his retinue of choristers, stranded for three days when their bus breaks down, decide to set up their tent, hold a three-day revival meeting, and squeeze all they can out of the piggy banks, cookie jars, and pockets of every last sucker in sight.

Jonas finds out quickly that the sheriff, Marla McGowan, a widow with a young teenage son, has her eye on him and is ready to lock him up at a moment’s notice.  Oh, and her son, Jake, is wheelchair-bound, injured in the accident that killed his father.

Not hard to guess the through-story, or the pending miracle (or miracles, if you count the rain).  A simple tale of the redemptive power of faith and love.

Only, not so fast.  The book writers Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, who adapted the musical from the motion picture of the same title, have thrown in a bunch of other stuff just to complicate matters and, I guess, to provide work for a cast of 37.  With all of those people, the revival tent, sound equipment, choir robes, and Nightingale’s “disco ball for Jesus” outfit (his description, not mine), it’s no wonder the bus broke down!

So apart from the story of the flimflam man, we get to know all about Jonas’s sister Sam, and about the Sturdevant family—Ida Mae, who heads up the Angels of Mercy choir, and her daughter Ornella and son Isaiah.  Unlike Jonas, the Sturdevants are true believers; Isaiah, a Bible school student who plans to follow his father’s footsteps onto the pulpit, has shown up in the hopes of getting his mom and sister to leave the charlatan. 

All in all, there is a lot going on—including a frame that essentially conscripts the audience into the Army of the Lord as attendees of the revival. 

Because this is a musical, I suppose I should talk about the music and lyrics.  So, OK.  Alan Menken has provided tunes that are mostly repetitious, generic gospel, and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are mostly monosyllabic basic rhymes.   

As for the performances, everyone is fine, I guess, especially with so little to work with.  Raul Esparza strives mightily to sell us on the Prodigal Son that is Jonas Nightingale, but there is—intentionally or not—precious little that is charming about this character, and as much as Esparza tries to pump up the volume, he cannot make this work.  The same holds true for the rest of the otherwise talented cast:  Kendra Kassebaum as Sam Nightingale, Jessica Phillips as Marla, Talon Ackerman as Jake (who believes with a child’s certainty in miracles), Kecia Lewis-Evans as Ida Mae, Krystal Joy Brown as Ornella, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Isaiah. 

Perhaps if director Christopher Ashley had the faith the slight story calls for and had gone for a simpler and less snarky approach, the show may have had a chance. 

As it is, there is no redemption for Leap of Faith.

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