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Theater review: 'Leap of Faith' at the Ahmanson Theatre

October 4, 2010 |  4:30 pm

Leap of faith 1a

Compared to the preachers making scandalous headlines these days, Jonas Nightingale, the con man at the center of the new musical “Leap of Faith,” is practically a saint. No male hustler companion, no crystal meth, no child molestation. For crying out the loud, the man doesn’t even own a Bentley!
  
But this musical adaptation of the 1992 film starring Steve Martin doesn’t want to compete with nasty reality (or even the more nihilistic turns of the movie). The show, which had its world premiere Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, lingers in darkness only to revel in the relief of light. Jonas may be guilty of racketeering, but as played by the seductive Raúl Esparza, a Broadway star whose energy is as fierce as his talent, this evangelical swindler conceals a tender heart behind a felonious sneer.
 
With a creative team that includes Disney movie composer and Academy Award-hoarder Alan Menken, the musical strives to turn the fable into a feel-good affair, complete with a tambourine-slapping gospel choir and Brooke Shields as Jonas’ love interest, Marva, the mother of a crippled boy who’s obviously a miracle waiting to happen. This erratic and somewhat overeager production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford (“Curtains,” “Promises, Promises”), stumbles to establish its drought-stricken Sweetwater, Kan., world, catches fire during the tent revivals and races toward an ending that dupes willing theatergoers as shamelessly as Jonas hoodwinks the salvation-hungry masses.

Leap of faith 1 True, much of the score is derivative, the dancing often seems like ballet school parody, Shields’ singing defensively retreats to the safest possible key and the closing moments are pure sentimental hokum. But there’s a fascinating character in the middle it all, and a performance by Esparza that digs deep into questions of faith, love and mystery. The show needs another overhaul, but it’s easy to see why the creators have persisted for so long with this project: There’s something uniquely compelling in the source material. I hope the collaborators press on (Broadway is apparently in their sights). They can begin with some radical pruning.

One easy suggestion: Drop the stylized dance preface that introduces the Sweetwater locals, a group that's required to twirl and leap before corn stalks without the benefit of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Ashford’s trifling choreography turns the townspeople into rubes, easy prey for the Angels of Mercy choir, which does most of the legwork for Jonas’ scams.

While having breakfast at the diner, Jonas becomes smitten with Marva, a waitress who’s raising her son, Boyd (Nicholas Barasch), on her own after the death of her husband in an accident that left her boy dependent on crutches. (The musical’s book, written by Janus Cercone with lyricist Glenn Slater, alters and expands Cercone’s screenplay.) As beautiful as she is resistant to sweet-talkers, Marva is particularly cynical when it comes to phony preachers, after a faith healer blamed Boyd for his failure to cure him.
 
Jonas, who prides himself on his ability to read people, can’t resist a romantic challenge. He makes a bet with his sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum), who masterminds his high-tech evangelical chicanery, on whether he can conquer Marva. Little does he realize that his mercenary nature has a soft spot that an openhearted youngster can slip right into.

Esparza plays Jonas as a fast-talking, Al Pacino-styled larcenist in a slick black suit. As frauds go, he’s a pretty transparent one. But his sexy swagger gives him a decided advantage and, anyway, conversion is a fairly rapid phenomenon in these parts. It only takes one house call before Shields’ Marva offers Jonas her hand to hold. But the tougher test will be whether Boyd can redeem the soul of a wayward stranger through the force of his belief in a happy ending for his lonely mom.
 
Attractive as ever, Shields turns Marva into a down pillow of emotion, all feathery comfort and mushy concern. Her hard-edged retorts wouldn’t scare off a boy scout collecting donations for his troop. With a watery glance, she imparts gallons of musical theater sentiment. You care about her, even though in real life such heartbreaking innocence would undoubtedly get taken to the cleaners.

Marva is “long passed dreamin’,” to borrow a line from Slater’s typically corny lyrics, yet she’s willing to take another shot at love. Shields makes her musical confessions in a voice so tentative that it’s easy to imagine cast members backstage crossing their fingers for her.  

Her lack of musical bravado is particularly noticeable in an ensemble that keeps unleashing thundering vocalists, like a military operation repeatedly forced to call in the Green Berets. Kassebaum’s impressive pipes brought her record-breaking longevity as Glinda in “Wicked,” but she has competition from some heavy hitters. Among them are Kecia Lewis-Evans as the rousing choir leader, Ida Mae; Leslie Odom Jr. as Ida Mae’s straitlaced son, Ricky, an eventual rival to Jonas’ leadership; and Krystal Joy Brown as ditzy, flirty Ornella.
 
But the fullest sound may emerge from an underage source. When Barasch delivers “Walk Into the Sunset,” he fills the Ahmanson with a resounding sweetness so loud that it seems to momentarily startle Esparza, who can power-croon with the best of them.
 
Too bad the score, conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman and under the musical supervision of Michael Kosarin, consists of so much imitative doodling. Second-hand gospel and generic musical theater rock occasionally give way to a copycat “Guys and Dolls” number or some other familiar retread. Menken is an esteemed veteran of stage and screen, but too often he settles here for mere competence.
 
The production design keeps to a dour palette, the better to throw into relief Jonas’ electrifying theatricality. The sets by Robin Wagner, costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Donald Holder work in tandem to create a gray landscape that’s just aching to be transformed by vivid color.

That job falls to Esparza, who flings himself headlong into the role, turning almost purple with emotion during “Jonas’ Soliloquy,” in which the reverend grapples with what he truly reverences.  It’s this journey of a protagonist who accurately describes himself as a “crook, not a monster” that gives the show whatever originality and muscle it has.  
 
Faith presumes doubt. I’m agnostic about “Leap of Faith,” but the musical’s mystical possibilities are hard to deny.

-- Charles McNulty


twitter.com\charlesmcnulty


"Leap of Faith," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.
Ends Oct. 24. $20 to $95 (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes


Photos: Top, Brooke Shields, Nicholas Barasch and Raúl Esparza. Bottom: Esparza and Shields. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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