Leap of Faith, LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Leap of Faith

Music by Alan Menken
Book by Janus Cercone and Glenn Slater
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
With Raúl Esparza and Brooke Shields
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Oct. 24, 2010
(See below for a video clip.)

Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza in “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Like to clap your hands, tap your toes?  Then see the musical “Leap of Faith,” because some very enjoyable gospel is going down at the Music Center right now. Will you be humming any of it in the shower the next morning? Or looking for meaning? Probably not. Even though the music and the story will have undoubtedly seemed awfully familiar while you were in the audience, not much is likely to stick.

Kecia Lewis-Evans (Ida Mae Sturdevant) leads the gospel choir. With her big zesty voice, she could make a believer out of a lamppost. Raúl Esparza is Jonas Nightingale, a sleazeball, itinerant evangelical preacher. He has brought his revival show to drought-stricken Sweetwater, Kansas, where the corn is drying up in the fields along with hope. Jonas’s revival show has to stay for a few more days than planned as their bus has broken down. True to form, Jonas takes adversity and turns it into opportunity. Here is a town that is ready for hope and miracles.

When it comes to sexy, slippery, apparently hyped-on-steroids singing and dancing, Esparza is your man. He is perfect in the part; his energy is truly astonishing. His chicanery is transparent. Who cares when it feels so good? What difference does it make if he is a charlatan? Sweetwater’s upstanding sheriff and Ida Mae’s son do, that’s who. The son is an earnest young man who is studying to become an upstanding preacher.  He is distressed that his mother has fallen in with such a disreputable group.

Who else sees through chicanery and razzle-dazzle?  Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields), that’s who.  She is a hard-working, tough waitress in the local diner. Her disabled son is her life. Even now, not much gets between Shields and her Calvins, but something gets between her and letting go sufficiently to portray an overworked, disillusioned single mom. But, let us carry on. You know what is going to happen. Phony man-of-God meets his match. Jonas falls for her, and–OMG–she falls for him. Will wonders never cease? Do any other miracles occur? And where does that sheriff fit in? I have to leave something to your imagination.

“Leap of Faith” is based on the 1992 movie of the same name with Steve Martin. In the movie, the town was more aptly named Rustwater, but everything in the musical is a little shinier. Alan Menken, winner of eight Oscars, eighteen nominations and countless other awards, is one of the most prolific composers around. His music for “Leap of Faith,” if not memorable, goes down easily, especially when belted by the able choir.  

What would a musical be without some dancing? Sad thought. Well, the townsfolk, choreographed by director Rob Ashford, seem to be ballet trained, and very polished for a nowhere town. As lovely as they were to watch, I did have a little trouble figuring out what they were expressing that had to do with simple, distressed and drought-stricken town folk. Be that as it may, they were good.

So, where does that leave me? Fair question. For the first act, I was genuinely entertained, not blown away, but entertained. As I said at the start: it is toe-tapping good, but breaks no original ground. It will never hold a candle against, say, “Guys and Dolls.” Act II? Well, of course it had to end with miracles, but rather than finish with a wink, “Leap of Faith” finishes with a heavy dose of schmaltz that would make no one a believer.

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