Friday, April 27, 2012

REVIEW: Leap of Faith

Review of the Saturday, April 7th evening preview performance at the St. James Theatre in New York City.  Starring Raul Esparza, Jessica Phillips, Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odem, Jr., Talon Ackerman and Krystal Joy Brown.  Music by Alan Menken.  Lyrics by Glenn Slater.  Book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight.  Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.  Direction by Christopher Ashley.  2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Grade: B-

If there wasn't already a musical titled See What You Wanna See, I might have suggested it to the authors of Leap of Faith, the new musical based on the film of the same name which opened last night at the St. James Theatre.  The show is a curious mix of hyper, obvious manipulation and uneven conviction, as well as razzle dazzle showmanship and a great deal of heart.  This mass of loud, over the top theatricality is bound to polarize audiences with its religious themes and its insistent in-your-face fake urgency.  Still, even if you don't leave the theatre feeling revived and connected to Him, you will probably leave feeling an exhausted exhilaration akin to riding a small, but scary, roller coaster.  How you feel about will likely determine whether, as one of the show's turning point of crisis numbers asks, "are you on the bus or not?"

Jonas Nightingale and His Angels of Mercy

I suppose it says a lot about the subject matter - evangelical tent revivals - that you find yourself easily swept up in the scenes that depict it.  It is almost like the minute they crank up the volume, lower a neon cross, and 30 people are swaying as if possessed while a preacher screams at you to shout "AMEN!", that your mind numbs, and hypnotized, you follow as you reach for your wallet.  Those numbers in Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's score are really among its best, drawing you in with their tempos and fervor: "Rise Up!", the rousing opening number, and "Dancing in the Devil's Shoes" and "If Your Faith Is Strong Enough," both of which sound and say what you'd expect from their titles.  But like most intelligent people, once the smoke and mirrors and heat of the moment pass, you start to question what your saw and your resulting behavior.  What exactly do I believe in?  Can that guy really make a crippled boy walk?  Why have the authors cheated by using a ridiculous framing device that has the story being told in flashback, but would never happen after how the story ends?

I also suppose that we are meant to forgive the equally obvious and manipulative scenes between this rogue preacher and the lovely town sheriff, who - shock of shocks! - is just as lost as he is, what with her duties to a tragic, dying town, the tragic loss of her husband in a car accident that also caused the tragic crippling of her son.  Her plate is full.  No time for the Lord, especially when it appears he has forgotten her altogether.  And, of course, despite being the Lord's "mouthpiece," the rogue preacher is on the lamb, unable to travel to most states, and out of money, but still as slick as the Devil enough to know that "one good haul from the needy" will put him right back on track.  The minute these scenes start, you know how everything will end up - mostly - given the title of the show.  And still, because these scenes are as slick as the Devil, too (book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, based on Cercone's screenplay), and because the game cast throws the very best of their talents into them, you forgive it all in the name of being entertained. Amen!

Preacher and Sheriff at the Motel 6

That is not to say there aren't any charms to be found in all of this shock and awe.  One of the best things about the book is its attempt, right up until the very end, to be balanced.  Is there such a thing as faith-based living, or is it just a way of giving ourselves hope when things are down?  Well, if you are the desperate folks of Sweetwater, Kansas where unemployment and drought has the town near death, then you go to to the revival desperate for help and salvation.  And if you are the town sheriff whose only coping mechanism for the state of her life is to deny any kind of faith, be it in a higher being or just herself, and call it "the line of duty," then you go to the revival hell bent of stopping the nonsense before the people lose what little they have left.  And both the town and the sheriff see what they want to see - hope and hell on earth - and neither party goes away disappointed.  As you watch the show (and if you haven't seen the film) are two surprises in this attempt to keep things balanced: that the sheriff , who hates everything the preacher stands for, is drawn to him enough to succumb to her carnal needs and beds him the day she meets him; and that when push comes to shove, the very people who perform these revivals are just as split over it as the sheriff is.  Half believe they are doing the Lord's work; the other half see it for the scam that it is.

Like I said, the creative team has gone to great lengths to present a balanced point of view, so as not to ruffle any religious or atheist feathers, right up until the very end.  That end is "Jonas' Soliloquy," a powerfully performed, if poor man's "Gethsemane."  And I really mean right up until the very end.  Here is Jonas Nightingale, con man extraordinaire, finally a moral crisis of conscience, after years of stealing from the poor, alone in a field, turning to the God he has forsaken all of his life (his father was a brute, naturally) to see if there really is something to this whole faith thing.  Throughout the course of the song, he reminds himself of all he's done, questions his own worth and comes to his own conclusion that it isn't too late to stop and lead a good life.  If the song has stopped right there, we, as an audience made up of the believers and the non-believers, could see what we want to see: either Jonas is saved by a higher power, or his own humanity saved himself.  We could all leave satisfied, right?  Wrong.  Because in the last seconds of that number, Jonas does something to suggest which it is that saves him, forever tipping the scales in one definite direction, and robbing us of the chance to think for ourselves.  Whether or not it is a cop out depends on how you feel about such things already.  For me, it almost ruined the whole thing, so I can understand the ambivalence that the show has engendered in the chat rooms and Twitter feed.  Religion as show business is a slippery slope, indeed.

The least appealing thing about Leap of Faith is its look.  Robin Wagner's omnipresent tent and arena rock set design are wholly unattractive.  Plain and just ugly, you have to look at it because it reaches far out into the seats and into the boxes upstairs.  Don Holder's lighting is equally unattractive, accentuating the (lack of) appeal of the set, and William Ivey Long's costumes - which amount to street clothes and some choir robes - are about as interesting as that disco ball jacket that figures into the show logo, which is to say they have occasional flair, but once you get over it, you are over it.  Most heinous of all is the extremely muddy sound by John Shivers, whose reliance on per instrument amplification and poorly used hand held microphones renders every revival scene's songs almost incomprehensible.

On the plus side, Sergio Trujillo's choreography is always interesting, which is no small feat considering it is made up entirely of show choir moves.  And, except for the ridiculous and unnecessary audience participation stuff intended to get us riled up for the impending festivities - the actors look uncomfortable and as unconvinced as we are that they are "the real thing" - Christopher Ashley's direction is brisk and frequently and effectively employs multiple simultaneous scenes occurring at once.  He is very good at letting us see what everyone is doing at the same time, making sure we know where to focus and when.

Leslie Odem, Jr. and Kecia Lewis-Evans

The cast is terrific from top to bottom.  They are the main reason I enjoyed the show so much despite the "disappointment hangover" I felt after some reflection on what I saw.  I especially enjoyed Kecia Lewis-Evans as the bookkeeper/choir mistress, Ida Mae.  Watching her navigate the rough balance between her true convictions and what she does for a living is very interesting.  Her song, "Lost," about the lies we tell ourselves and others, is a study in internal conflict.  The breakout performance of the show has to be Leslie Odem, Jr. (TV's Smash) as Isaiah, the son of Ida Mae, who is a true believer, and who, for all the right reasons wants to bring this whole operation down.  Even though that means turning in his own mother and sister.  I love watching him work through this conflict, and I love how his character ends up.  His solo number, "Walking Like Daddy," is a highlight.  Talon Ackerman who plays the wheelchair-bound kid, Jake, does very well in making us believe that he believes he can be helped, even if he isn't 100% sure about miracles.  For him, faith is one thing, miracles are another.  It is also to his credit that he doesn't dumb down the part by playing cute or overly maimed, begging for our sympathy.  Rather, he draws us in with his strength, making us feel like, "hey, give the kid a break, already!  He's shown he can deal with this like a man, now fix it!"  And though the role is written pretty much as a one note character - smart ass cold girl with her eye only on the money - Kendra Kassebaum makes the role much more dimensional.  A good actress can elevate such a role, and she is a good actress.  Her big back story reveal number, "People Like Us," though no real surprise content-wise, is affecting simply because she puts it over so well.

Kendra Kassebaum, Raul Espraza and Jessica Phillips

The town sheriff, Marla, is played by star-on-the-rise Jessica Phillips.  She is terrific, with great chemistry with her co-star, and a great, sweet motherly vibe in scenes with her son.  I hope that over the course of previews they have fleshed out her character some more and have given her more to do.  She is as hard as nails at first, but as the play progresses, she slowly reveals her vulnerabilities.  That she can go toe-to-toe with her co-star in such numbers as "I Can Read You" and "Long Past Dreamin'," only goes to show what a strong performer she is.  A lesser actress would easily get swallowed up whole in the vortex of intensity that is Raul Esparza.  As I have come to expect, he throws himself completely into this and every role with unbelievable vigor.  He will take huge risks, go larger than life one minute, and then become a low key attention magnet the next.  Smart enough to not completely chew the scenery, he is also a gracious actor, not pulling focus (on purpose, anyway) when he isn't the focus of the scene.  Still, and especially in this tour-de-force role, his charisma practically begs you to watch him, even in the background.  His preacher man is one cool customer, making you feel like he is performing just for you, even though he is ice berg cold and wouldn't give you the time of day if you were alone with him.  One-on-one is too much for this guy, but a tent full of the most desperate is right up his alley.  Esparza sings the role very well, and his two solos numbers that end each act are memorable, even if the latter, "Jonas' Soliloquy" is a deal breaker for some.  It isn't his performance that breaks the deal.

Raul Esparza

As I said, Leap of Faith does a pretty decent job and keeping all sides represented, but religion and entertainment are close, but strange bedfellows.  You will be entertained, regardless.  How you feel about religion, faith and man's power over himself will certainly effect how you ultimately feel about this show.  Miracle or self-righteous epiphany; it is up to you.  You will see what you want to see.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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