‘Leap of Faith’ a good not great con-man/preacher musical

“Leap of Faith” is a new musical making its world premiere at the Ahmanson and it succeeds in taking an old Steve Martin film and makes it better in some places, but it is by no means a great musical.

The story is an old one: the traveling preacher who isn’t really a man of faith, but a con man working that old time religion. In the 1992 movie, Steve Martin played Jonas Nightengale and technology made Jonas’ con worker easier along with a sharp manager (Debra Winger).

You might check out the movie because it features Steve Martin in a performance that is everything you’d want: funny, sad and cynical. He’s not being a comedian; he’s playing it straight and doing it well.

If like Ebert, you felt the screenplay by Janus Cercone and the direction by Richard Pearce, didn’t give a satisfactory ending or an ending at all, the book by Cercone with Glenn Slater corrects that.

Things have been changed around a bit. On stage, we don’t get to see the caravan of four trucks and buses or the slick trick with the cop–make a cop cry and get out of a ticket. In the background, we seen dried up stalks of corn standing in the background and the sky is golden–not with nostalgia but dry, economy-killing heat. The townfolk dance and this isn’t a hoe-down. This is a small town made up of Kent Boyds and Boydettes, but luckily the name of the town is easier to pronounce than Wapakoneta, Ohio. We’re in Sweetwater, Kansas (the movie took place in Rustwater, Kansas).

Behind them, a line of people walk in with suitcases in hand. This is the Angels of Mercy, a gospel choir, led by Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans), who help Jonas Nightengale (Raul Esparza) create his faith-healing revival meetings. They are on their way to Topeka to clean up on the faithful. Jonas’ sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) manages this team and wants to blow this town, but they have to wait for parts to fix one of their vehicles. Jonas is sure he can raise enough money to make their payroll and seduce the widowed waitress Marva (Brooke Shields). Yet Marva has a son, the red-haired Boyd (Nicholas Barasch) who has been unable to walk since the car accident that killed his father and the boy touches Jonas’ heart.

If stories like this can’t exist without a bad guy, Cercone and Slater provide one in the form of the Sheriff Will Braverman (Jarrod Emick). In the movie, Will was a more thoughtful, introspective guy who starts us a romance with a character named Jane who is Jonas’ manager. In this musical, he’s the driving force behind the well drilling efforts to bring water to the crops that in Robin Wagner’s scenic design look far past their permanent wilt point (and I’ve grown corn before) for water to even help.  The role is thanklessly humorless. Will is assisted by his deputy Wayne Storm (Charlie Williams).  But that “big ass water pump” is just “drilling for hope.” And in the musical, Will is too serious to romance Sam and has oddly seems to have no friends among the townspeople.

The theme here is that we need to “Rise Up” and the song is the first song of the first and second act. “Leap of Faith” is the last song. The message seems to be that the gospel reaches people in different ways or “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Under the direction and choreography of Rob Ashford, this musical is energetic enough, but sometimes the score by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid,” and “Sister Act” among others), and the lyrics by Slater (“The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act”) are uninspired. There were moments when snippets of the scores melodic line sounded vaguely familiar, particularly in the case of Marva’s first song, “Do Whatcha Gotta Do,” that seemed to recycle bars from many other musicals, all faintly familiar but utterly forgettable. Menken has won eight Oscars for Disney animation tunes (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas”).

Esparza isn’t channeling Martin, but creating his own Jonas, but the chemistry between Shields and Esparza is rather cool and it doesn’t help that the tonal quality of their voices doesn’t harmonize well.

Those who have seen the movie and remember the ending, will still be surprised because so much of this story has been reworked. Unlike the movie there is a distinct ending yet everything is so neatly, so very neatly resolved. This isn’t a great musical and the story (book) is just an average retelling of the traveling con-man/preacher, but it does allow for some amazing voices to sing gospel music. Overall, this musical is slightly better than the movie where the only man dancing was Steve Martin’s faux faith healer. It’s a hop in the right direction, but not the kind of leap needed to make audiences rise up and give up their faith to the musical with a standing o.

“Leap of Faith” continues at the Ahmanson until 24 October 2010. For tickets or more information, go to CTG website.

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