Monday, May 21, 2012

The Untimely Demise of Leap of Faith

Raúl Esparza and the cast of Leap of Faith (Photos by Joan Marcus)

On Sunday afternoon May 13th I saw what turned out to be the final performance of a vibrant new musical called Leap of Faith. Upon receiving a baffling (but hardly unprecedented) review by Ben Brantley in The New York Times that referred to it in the opening sentence as a black hole that sucks up everything that gets near it, the production began to bleed money. It did receive a nomination for the Best Musical Tony – normally a stopgap for failing shows; producers keep them open until after the awards in the hope that a prize or two might generate some activity at the box office. Here, though, there was no chance of that, since Leap of Faith received no other nominations -- not for the vivid Alan Mencken-Glenn Slater score, or Christopher Ashley’s direction, or Sergio Trujillo’s terrific choreography, or Robin Wagner’s handsome, ingenious set, or Donald Holder’s lighting or William Ivey Long’s costumes, and, most remarkably, not one single nomination for anyone in the amazingly talented cast. The Best Musical nod, then, was a slap in the face:  the subtext was “We don’t think there’s a single distinguished quality in this musical but there were only half a dozen new musicals this season and you’re not as bad as Bonnie and Clyde.” One wonders if the Tony voters actually went to see Leap of Faith at all or if they read Brantley and opted to stay home. If so, they missed a hell of a show.

Janus Cercone and Warren Leight adapted Leap of Faith from Cercone’s screenplay for the 1992 movie, starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger as a nickel-plated revivalist preacher and his partner in crime, the equally cynical young woman who manages his traveling Jesus circus. In both versions, the Reverend Jonas Nightingale (“Nightengale” in the movie), who’s on the run in other parts of Bible country for passing bad checks and other forms of fraud, decides to pitch his tent in a small Kansas town in the midst of a long drought that has devastated farms and – in the present-day stage edition – exacerbated an already woeful economy. Jonas’s agenda is to take advantage of the locals’ desperation and their need for some, any, brand of hope.  They expect him to heal their various kinds of wounds and to make it rain.  “The beauty part,” as Jonas (Raúl Esparza) explains to us at the beginning of act two, is that if no miracle transpires, “it’s on them:  they didn’t believe enough.”  The material is related to N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, where a charismatic young man not only promises rain but enchants a spinster who’s given up on the possibility of romance.  (Memorably, Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn played those roles in the 1955 movie version of The Rainmaker, and Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson brought new vitality to them in the 1999 Broadway revival.)  It’s even more closely linked to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, where a con-man itinerant drummer named Harold Hill plans to rook the citizens of an Iowa town out of their money by convincing them that their children can only be saved from moral decrepitude by playing in a marching band  until the combination of a stiff-backed librarian and her lonely kid brother locate the heart he didn’t know he had.  The idea is the same in all three:  behind the phony show-biz hype lurks a touch of authenticity that hornswaggles even the hardest case. That would be Jonas, who is so unsettled when he manages to heal someone for real that his immediate response is anger, as if he’d been conned. The Rainmaker’s Starbuck, Harold Hill and Jonas are all variants on a classic American type, the magnetic swindler that Melville invented in The Confidence Man. These softer versions allow for a happy ending; if you wanted to take them into darker waters you’d end up with a tragic figure like O’Neill’s Hickey in The Iceman Cometh or an ironic one like Paul in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, whose belief in his own con is a kind of schizophrenia.

Steve Martin in Leap of Faith (1992)
As a movie Leap of Faith didn’t work, though it had some wonderful sequences (certainly the best I’ve ever seen in a movie directed by Richard Pearce).  The elements just didn’t come together, and some of it, like Winger’s romance with a true-blue sheriff (an extremely miscast Liam Neeson) and the back story explaining how Jonas got to be the crook he is, never rang true. And though Martin’s ice-cold spieler was something to watch, you wanted to keep your distance. Pearce and Cercone were striving to avoid compromising the character by having him refuse to believe even when the crippled teenage boy (the prodigious Lukas Haas) who won’t stop believing gets up off his crutches at the climax of Jonas’s tent meeting and walks on his own two feet. But at the end, the movie didn’t feel ambiguous, just insufficiently worked through.  In the musical, Cercone and Leight return to the lineage of their character and allow him to be knocked on his ass by forces he’s never believed in, and the book takes us there by juxtaposing Jonas’s skepticism and that of his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) – a modified version of the Debra Winger character – with Ida Mae Sturdevant (Kecia Lewis-Evans), their gospel leader, who believes simultaneously in Jonas and in the God he only pretends to serve. The book and the songs keep pairing the characters as foils, linking them thematically. Ida Mae knows she’s compromising; so does Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), the town sheriff, the mother of the boy, Jake (Talon Ackerman), who lost the use of his legs in the accident that killed his daddy three years earlier. She doesn’t believe he’s ever going to walk again but she lies to him, encouraging him to think otherwise. (In the movie the boy’s mother is a waitress, played by Lolita Davidovich; the musical combines that character with the sheriff and thus provides Jonas rather than Sam with a romantic interest.) Yet Marla wants to close Jonas down for his fakery and for encouraging his audience – which, inevitably, includes Jake – to have the same kind of hope. To Ida Mae and her daughter Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown), who sings in Jonas’s choir, Jonas is a savior of a kind because he pulled Ornella out of a life of drugs and promiscuity. Ida Mae’s son Isaiah (Leslie Odom, Jr.), with his Bible college degree, is quick to condemn Jonas, but his mother points out that the boy’s role model, his late preacher father, was a cold man who didn’t earn his son’s emulation.

Raúl Esparza and Jessica Phillips
When Jonas delivers a bogus message to a young widow (Dierdre Friel) from her husband and she throws her wedding ring into the plate, we have two opposite reactions: we can see the emotional manipulation on Jonas’s side but we also see the emotional commitment on the widow’s – the beauty of the gesture that says she has enough faith to go on with her life and pull herself out of her paralyzing grief. It’s what you might call a Robert Altman moment. Altman once said in an interview that what he wanted to evoke in audiences at the end of Nashville, after the country singer Barbara Jean has been shot and Barbara Harris revs the stunned crowd into singing “It Don’t Worry Me,” was a double reaction:  horror at their fickleness (they just saw one of their idols gunned down before their eyes and now they’re singing?) and admiration at their resilience (they just saw one of their idols shot and yet they’re still able to get up and sing). I’m not trying to suggest that Leap of Faith is a masterpiece like Nashville, but that it’s layered and complicated and has a lot going on in it – considerably more than most musicals, or even most straight plays.

Mencken has written a great deal of rousing music (“Rise Up!,” “Lost,” “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes,” “Are You on the Bus?” and other songs) as well as a couple of fine duets for Jonas and Marla, the sexy  “Fox in the Henhouse” and “I Can Read You.” It needs a few more ballads, though it does have a lovely one in the second act, “Long Past Dreamin’,” which Phillips performs affectingly. In only one number does the emotion feel whipped up: the second-act “People Like Us,” sung first by Sam and then by Marla. Mencken and Slater must have been overjoyed when they heard the performers who were going to sing their songs: the musical numbers constitute one tour-de-force after another by the likes of Phillips, Kassebaum, and especially Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Krystal Joy Brown. It would be tough to pick the highest point, but “Are You on the Bus?” – which begins as Ornella’s challenge to her fellow gospellers, some of whom, under Isaiah’s influence, have threatened to walk off the show; then shifts to Sam’s censuring Jonas for losing his nerve; then culminates in Ida Mae’s criticism of Isaiah for his black-and-white vision of the world – is really something. The afternoon I saw the show, the audience wouldn’t stop applauding at the end of the number, which ends with the three soloists stepping upstage and Esparza moving down. So Esparza, in a touchingly sweet gesture during this swan-song performance, stopped the performance, beckoned Brown, Kasesbaum and Lewis-Evans back downstage and let them take the applause, which turned into a standing ovation. (It’s worth mentioning that the ensemble – and, among the principals, Odom – are a gifted crop of singers and dancers.)

Esparza is marvelous as Jonas: he has the right ironic tone and his numbers are mesmerizing. What he doesn’t have in this role is that hint of real emotion underneath the flamboyant display, and if he did his two showpiece numbers, “King of Sin” in the first act and “Jonas’s Soliloquy” in the second, would be not just musical-comedy knockouts but truly great. It’s the quality Robert Preston had in The Music Man. That a young musical-theatre performer could come close enough to make you ask for so much is a tribute to Esparza, and to Leap of Faith.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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