Leap of Faith

Raul Esparza delivers his finest performance to date as a flimflamming evangelist in this musical adaptation of the 1992 film.

Raúl Esparza and company in Leap of Faith
(© Joan Marcus)
Raúl Esparza and company in Leap of Faith
(© Joan Marcus)

The best song in this season’s smallish crop of new musicals is “I Can Read You” — a duet for flimflamming evangelist Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza, in his finest performance to date) and local sheriff Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips) — in
Leap of Faith, the new Broadway tuner adapted loosely from the 1992 film of the same name, at the St. James Theatre.

While the show is now stirring up audiences for both the right and wrong reasons, the good news — especially for musical lovers willing to take the leap — is that the musical also includes the season’s second and third best songs: “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes” and “Are You on the Bus?”

Their irresistible qualities are no mystery, since the composer is Oscar-winner Alan Menken, who has teamed once again with his Sister Act lyricist Glenn Slater. They are a pair of tunesmiths who don’t compromise craft for contemporary-pop credibility.

Leap of Faith may take on a familiar subject — hypocritical self-proclaimed healers are at least as old as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker — but bookwriters Janus Cercone (who wrote the film’s screenplay) and Warren Leight have put a mitigating spin on it. (They also create an unnecessary framing device in which the show is being put on specifically for Manhattan audiences, and the story is essentially being told in flashback.)

Here, Nightingale arrives in the drought-ridden small town of Sweetwater with sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) coordinating the nefarious activities, Ida Mae Sturdevant (Kecia Lewis-Evans) cooking the books, and her daughter Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown) bucking up the troupe of singing “Angels” — whose dissatisfaction grows when Ornella’s brother Isaiah (Leslie Odom Jr.) arrives, preaching a truer gospel.

Complicating matters further is Marla, who smells a con artist when she sees one and is determined to shield her wheel-chair-ridden son Jake (Talon Ackerman) from exploitation. She initially resists Jonas’ aggressive charms, then gives in, and then puts duty before feeling by throwing Jonas briefly in jail, and later threatening to shut him down once and for all.

However, what suspense there is in Leap of Faith revolves around whether Jonas will work the miracle of getting Jake, who has more faith than anyone else on hand, to walk during the final revival meeting in designer Robin Wagner’s striped tent.

As Nightingale, Esparza infuses substance into this sometimes contrived material. Moreover, as lit by Don Holder as if receiving God’s grace, he delivers the very fine “Jonas’ Soliloquy” as an 11 o’clock number and thereby puts the finishing touches on a piece of acting remarkable for its dynamic blend of hokum and heart.

Chalk up the rest of what clicks to the abundant musical stops pulled out by director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo (at least once borrowing from Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”) and a mixed chorus of gospel shouters who deliver the Menken-Slater score.

Sure, such ditties may sound simple, but with “Rise Up,” “Step Into the Light,” and “If Your Faith is Strong Enough,” Menken and Slater toss them off smartly enough that you might just be tempted to shout Amen.

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Leap of Faith

Closed: May 13, 2012