theater review

Theater Review: Leap of Faith Falls Short

Leap of Faith
Raúl Esparza in Leap of Faith. Photo: Joan Marcus

On its third director and its second book, the slightly road-worn Leap of Faith vaults over a chasm of skepticism — and stops precisely three quarters of the way across. It’s not a terrible show—Elmer Gantry meets The Music Man is certainly a winning stage-musical conceit — but it’s a persistently confused one, in tone, content, and mood. Ostensibly a straightforward inspirational dramedy (sporting a straightforward set of smoothly toothsome Alan Menken tunes, sprightly recyclings of his trademark pop yearnings and gospel pastiche), the show aims to be hiply clued-in and folksily naïve all at once. The result is a sermon in song that’s rousing enough, but also instantly evanescent: Believers and unbelievers alike are welcomed (nay, bullied) to clap along, and they’ll leave baptized in freshets of energetically manipulative pop-Broadway melody, but the effect evaporates fast. Leap feels like the not-awful, not-wonderful product of a long series of compromises.

The show’s commitment to cross purposes begins with its book, cannily rewritten by Warren Leight (Side Man), and its star Raúl Esparza, who plays the mendicant skeevangelist Jonas Nightingale. Running a traveling tent revival with his sister Sam (a dry Kendra Kassebaum), Jonas is a devout cynic with a gift for showmanship who bleeds credulous rubes for a sawbuck here, a nickel there, in exchange for a little hope and a lot of dazzle. The show opens inside a meta-theatrical frame: We’re at a “real” Nightingale revival in New York, hearing about the circumstances of the good reverend’s own sin and conversion: how he used to be a con artist posing as a man of God. But thanks to certain Damascene events he experienced in a drought-stricken Kansas town called Sweetwater — events he and his Angels of Mercy will now reenact — Jonas is now the (wink-wink) real thing. Fake cash is distributed to the audience, and baskets are passed around, on cue, to hoover it back up. (The logistics required to distribute, then recover worthless Monopoly money is a metaphor for the whole show’s fussily self-canceling mechanics.)  

Esparza, with his hooded gaze and bratty smirk, infuses Jonas with the contemporary, ironic energy he’s known for. (Director Christopher Ashley has him constantly tippling from a hip flask, the universal shorthand for paganism.) But Esparza is transparently shifty and seems to be winking at his marks at every turn, encouraging everyone to look at his hustle as just that, a hustle. There’s not an ounce of adequately feigned sincerity in him. How’d he ever pull this con off in the first place? Do his hardworking, unpaid (and, interestingly, mostly black) angels know he’s a fraud? (The book equivocates on this.) And do we ever get to meet any true believers who aren’t background-player caricatures and assorted rednextras? (Leslie Odom Jr. plays an authentic man of the cloth, but his role feels tacked-on and severely underdeveloped.) Jonas’s love interest is also his antagonist, the flinty, lonely local sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips), with whom he makes an interesting arrangement: They’ll enjoy each other sexually, and he’ll be gone in three days — provided he leaves her disabled son Jake (Talon Ackerman) out of his revival show. Jake’s eager to believe, but he’s also perfectly aware the show is fake, and there it is again: the sort of half-assed, believe-the-lie showbiz postmodernism that’s at work all across pop-culture right now. I’m not suggesting mainstream Broadway musicals are the ideal forum for discussing theosophical paradoxes, but the ambiguity here feels more like the outcome of a marketing meeting. (After all, if the show plays its cards right, Menken’s rousing gospel numbers — “Rise Up!,” “Lost,” and the title song especially — will have a long shelf life as sincere spiritual pop.) The show’s patchwork shiftiness doesn’t exactly curdle Leap’s simple-syrup story of lost faith miraculously redeemed, but it blunts the energy. A second act that’s short on plot and long on finale-stalling, soul-searching standalone numbers doesn’t help, either. Esparza and Phillips give us something palpable to cling to with their refreshingly grown-up chemistry, and when Jonas finally faces the limits of his faithlessness, Esparza musters some eleven o-’clock Carousel pathos in a genuinely effective sung-soliloquy. Leap of Faith isn’t the walk of shame the pundits made it out to be after its (reportedly weak) Los Angeles debut. It’s just not quite enough to bring us to our feet. And, for an Alan Menken gospel musical with a flawless ensemble and a great leading man in the pulpit, that sorta buggers belief.

Leap of Faith is playing at the St. James Theatre.

How Leap of Faith Falls Short