Florida Report From New York: Leap Of Faith & Raul Esparza

Or Coming To A Theater Near You (Or Not)

By Bill Hirschman

Welcome to our semi-annual scouting trip for shows likely to appear in South Florida in a local production or a national tour — or shows you should make a point of seeing or avoiding on your next trip up north. The trip coincided with the hectic week of openings just under the deadline to be considered for Tony nominations to be announced Tuesday.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll give you a look at what we took in, seen through the prism of Florida theatergoers. Among the shows are Leap of Faith (starring Miami’s Raul Esparza), Other Desert Cities (announced for Actors Playhouse), Peter and the Starcatcher (based on books by the Herald’s Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), Once, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Columnist, End of the Rainbow, Venus in Fur and a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (with an African-American cast).

The major shows we did not see were Evita, Death of a Salesman, One Man Two Guv’nors, Ghost, The Best Man and the one almost certain to come to Florida on tour, Newsies. We’d have needed another week.

Today’s Review: Leap of Faith

The terrific 1992 film that this musical is based on contains a roof-raising gospel number with the lyric: “Are you ready for a miracle?”

That’s exactly what’s needed with this tale of a con man and his crew traveling the drought-stricken Midwest posing as evangelistic faith healers, ripping off indigent folks desperately looking for hope during tent revivals.

The electricity that Jonas Nightingale pretends to channel through his hands into the trembling bodies of his marks is precisely what is missing from this lackluster production. It’s not a terrible show at all, just uninspiring. Considering the potential of this cross between The Music Man and The Rainmaker, it’s a disappointment.

Leap of Faith stars Miami’s favorite son Raul Esparza who has loyally stuck with this work through five troubled years of development including a tryout last year in Los Angeles and carloads of changes as late as the last week before opening April 26. You can understand Esparza’s attraction to playing a rousing rogue who whips up ecstasy among an impassioned audience and who finds true faith and true love in a small Kansas town.

He and several cast members have powerhouse voices, but they have nothing particularly outstanding to work with in a mediocre score by the ubiquitous Broadway/Hollywood composer Alan Menken (already on Broadway with Newsies and Sister Act) and lyricist Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid and the accursed Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom sequel Love Never Dies). The creators would have done better to co-op the film’s soundtrack of authentic gospel numbers.

What’s truly amazing is how completely the script misses what was brilliant about the film – the believable redemption of a genuine cynic, made possible by his personal sacrifice after discovering a glimmer of faith. But he has to start out as a louse for there to be any change and someone here didn’t have the courage to do that. This is especially strange given that the bookwriters are the screenwriter of the film, Janus Cercone, and the fine playwright Warren Leight (Side Man). Doubtless, director Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu, et al) and a gaggle of producers believed mainstream audiences could not deal with the initial darkness.

Esparza has proven his superb acting and singing skills a dozen times over from Speed the Plow to The Rocky Horror Show. But, surprisingly, Jonas is not quite a good fit. In his brilliant portrayal of the protagonist of Company, his character was a tamped down, sardonic watcher. But here that detachment doesn’t work, especially when he’s leading the many revival gospel numbers. He smolders but he never seems to be on fire. Esparza certainly has a well-honed deadly droll delivery of sarcastic rejoinders. But the director and script writers go to that well over and over again. Worse, Jonas keeps saying he’s a bad man, but with Esparza you just don’t believe it. Which makes his reclamation not much of a miracle.

The show’s strengths are Esparza’s sleepy-eyed charisma and a cast blessed with voices that sound like an entire brass section. For instance, there are the Gabriel trumpets of glory of Kecia Lewis-Evans as the choir leader, Krystal Joy Brown as her pragmatic daughter and Leslie Odom Jr. as her son, a ministerial student appalled by the con.

But there are dozens of missteps and elements that simply make no sense. Lewis-Evans’ character is supposedly spiritual, but she keeps two sets of crooked books for Jonas. Reconcile that. Or hear Jonas whipping up his devout choir with the injunction, “Let’s go out and save some God damn souls!”

Another problem is the entire evening’s framing device: Jonas and his troupe are retelling the central story as a flashback in the middle of a genuine revival in New York City among Broadway theatergoers on the stage of the St. James Theater. This is almost painful in its unlikelihood. Later, someone from the small town who was in a wheelchair in the flashback and is later cured, appears at the theater revival – back in the wheelchair.

Critics I know in attendance kept giving me those eye-rolling looks at intermission like “What were they thinking?” I kept saying, “See the movie. See the movie.”

This one isn’t coming to South Florida without another round of major surgery. But tour impresario Broadway Across America is an associate producer and they, indeed, successfully overhauled the woebegone The Addams Family before taking it on the road. So don’t lose faith; you might still see it. But this version likely will barely make it to the Tony ceremony June 10.

To see video of the show, click here.

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7 Responses to Florida Report From New York: Leap Of Faith & Raul Esparza

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