Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Look Before You Leap

October 04, 2010

Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza in Leap of Faith Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

There are a few things to recommend the new Alan Menken and Glenn Slater musical Leap of Faith that opened up at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday (and which I saw in one of the final previews on Friday night). It’s a pleasant enough story based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Steve Martin in the role of Jonas Nightingale, the flim-flam revival preacher who inadvertently renews evereyone's faith and musters up some bona-fide miracles in a drought-stricken Kansas farm town. Of course, I liked Leap of Faith better when it was titled The Music Man and starred Robert Preston and Barbara Cook. But a loving copy can still be enjoyable in certain circumstances. Sadly, though, this is not one of them. Menken and Slater’s new musical version of the story lives and breathes cliché and ham-handed dialog for at least the first two hours of this evening. The music is largely forgettable in that contemporary musical theater way as it mines a sort of lite-Gospel strain that is appropriate for the setting.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the show is that despite the long dull stretch of the first and most of the second act, the last 20 or so minutes that make up the 11 o’clock number and the finale actually come to life. It leaves you to wonder, where was this musical the rest of the time? The success of the big finish is largely due to the show’s biggest theater star, Raúl Esparza as Nightingale. He’s one of the most charismatic stars on Broadway, and his talents are on full display here. He deserves a big fat original musical built around him in the worst way. But this is so not it. That 11 o’clock number, “Jonas’ Soliloquy” is lifted almost directly out of Gypsy and a dozen other shows. Esparza can apparently do a version of Mama Rose as well as any number of actors who’ve won Tonys for doing just that. And while his character is reflecting more on the role of faith in his life than his inability to meet the demands of his unbridled ambition, Esparza pulls off a very affecting moment in the follow-spot.

Then there is the matter of Brooke Shields as Marva, a local waitress and mother of a disabled boy who is about the only one in town not falling for Nightingale’s scam. (The other exception is the town sheriff.) I love Brooke Shields. She has superb comic timing and great stage presence. I admire her personally for speaking up for what she believes in and calling rot on the Tom Cruises of the world. But love her all I can, she does not carry the vocal part of this at all. To call her pitchy would be kind, and though I know she’s made star turns in musicals before, Leap of Faith would not convince me to see more of her in similar material. The rest of the cast has some excellent voices including Kecia Lewis-Evans and Leslie Odom, Jr., who play a mother and son duo. But all the lovely singing in the world can’t compensate for a book with so little going for it. Leap of Faith runs through October 24.


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