This poor show was treated badly by most of the New York critics, and the Tony committee favored it with only one nomination — but that was for Best Musical! Now how can you be considered a contender for “best”when none of the creators of the show are mentioned?
I caught the show only minutes before the close of the season, on April 29th and like most everyone else at my matinée, I was not expecting much. But from the opening moment on, I was totally caught up in the swirl, energy and infectious joy of “Rise Up”, the first of many stage worthy songs (something that cannot be said for most of the new musicals) by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater that raised the rafters.
I did not think of me as a lover of gospel, but when it’s performed this well, I’d have to be a crusty curmudgeon not to find myself clapping my hands. But gospel is just part of it.
“Fox In The Henhouse” follows the opening number, and it lets us know, with lyrics for a refreshing change that involve character and move the story forward, why leading lady Marla McGowan has no interest in being courted by Jonas Nightingale, the leader of the traveling troupe of gospel singers. That these two roles are being played by Jessica Phillips (new to me) and the charismatic Raúl Esparza makes it difficult to understand how they were both ignored for a Tony nomination. Again I say, “Best Musical”? But not one creative element of the show is worthy? Sounds pretty dumb to me.
So what is this Leap of Faith? It’s Jonas Nightingale, charlatan, another Harold Hill from The Music Man, another Elmer Gantry in the musical named after him, another reprehensible but lovable con man like Freddie and Lawrence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
But Jonas is a preacher, and with the help of his willing sister Sam, who feeds him information about his supplicants while he is “curing” them of whatever ails them, he makes a decent but unremarkable living, and more importantly, he has no strings on him, he is a free soul roaming the land. His leap of faith is to begin to believe in himself, to begin to quit denying his loneliness. Enough for you to know he is not the same man at the end of the musical as he was at its start, and isn’t that what a satisfying show is supposed to do? Especially when the material that accompanies his journey if, for the most part, first rate. It worked for me.
Esparza is always interesting. Far more interesting than Jeremy Jordan, Tony nominated for Newsies. Jordan is handsome, sings well, dances with vigor, but is not a star. Star quality is a gift; Esparza has it, Jordan does not.
Every time I see Esparza’s work, I’m exposed to another facet of his enormous talent. He was creepy in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, he was funny and moving in Company, he was comfortable in period clothes in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, he was the perfect Mamet weasel in Speed the Plow, he was bizarre in Boy George’s Taboo, now in Leap of Faith he’s singing and dancing as the true leader of this company. And what he does with Jonas’ 11:00 o’clock Soliloquy? Well what he does is tear the roof off the St. James Theatre. I’m certain they have to repair it after each show.
The rest of the cast is fine, too. Ms. Phillips is a lovely leading lady, and Kendra Kassebaum is a first rate sibling for Jonas, a sister who loves him but is not happy with the job he has her doing as he skates through life on very thin ice. Talon Ackerman is remarkable, very special indeed, as a teenager who is disabled and responsible for Jonas’ taking that leap of faith himself. Leslie Odom Jr. makes his mark in “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes”, and contributes to the engaging book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, with a winning performance.
Christopher Ashley has staged Leap of Faith with vigor and imagination, and Sergio Trujillo has everyone dancing up a storm. If you want to emerge from the theatre into the Spring air rejuvenated, intoxicated and buzzing all over, forget the Tony Committee and treat yourself to a ticket to the St. James, matinée or evening.
Leap of Faith is onstage at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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