Based on the 1992 film of the same name, the new musical -- featuring a book by Glenn Slater and Janus Cercone and a score by Slater and Alan Menken -- is set in a small Kansas town suffering from drought. Soon, Jonas (Esparza) blows into town and sets up a revival tent with his choir and milks the poverty-stricken Kansas folks with fake miracles.
However, his growing love for Marva (Brooke Shields, whose vocal prowess pales beyond the rest of the cast), a waitress and single mother, and her afflicted son (Nicholas Barasch) gives him an attack of conscience. Adding to his troubles is the town's moralistic Sheriff (Jarrod Emick), who wants Jonas, his manager sister (the fine Kendra Kassebaum), and their entire troupe run out of town.
As one might surmise from the plot description, a serious sense of deja vu lingers over the show, which brings to mind such other similarly-themed works as Elmer Gantry, The Rainmaker, and, most notably The Music Man. (One keeps wondering when Esparza will start selling the kids band instruments and break into "76 Trombones.") Moreover, the story actually falls apart in the end, with nonsense forgiveness wiping away felonies, betrayals, and other sins. The last scene practically kills the show with its predictability and pumped-up sentimentality.
Director Rob Ashford succeeds best in the show's tent scenes, when the choir has the chance to dazzle the audience through song, dance, and stunts. His staging of the book scenes is somewhat less compelling, and the conceit of the townspeople expressing their desperation through an Agnes DeMille-style ballet sticks out like a sore thumb instead of adding pathos.
Outside of Esparza, the score is the show's strongest asset. Menken knows how to stir up the audience with spiritual music. The gospel songs make you want to leap to your feet and clap out loud, particularly "Step Into the Light," "Rise Up," and "If Your Faith is Strong Enough." The one song outside the tent that captures the same depth is "Are You On The Bus?" a rousing argument between the cast questioning each other's commitments.
Ashford also gets more-than-able assistance from lighting designer Donald Holder, who uses hot dry colors to visually convey the rainless town, and costume designer William Ivey Long, who has constructed glittering gospel gowns for the choir, as well as an appropriately gaudy jacket spangled in mirrors for Esparza that turns the theater into a light show whenever he wears it. It's not quite enough, however, to blind audiences from the show's many flaws.
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