If there were a prayer for Broadway shows it would be for all of them to be hits.
Despite good intentions, though, Leap of Faith” at the St. James Theatre is an unanswered prayer.
The idea is there — a fake preacher swindles people, and eventually he must face his conscience.
Conning people of faith — or into faith — is so evil, there should be plenty of material to mine. And mounting it as a musical is a natural, paving the way for rich gospel voices (it isn’t as if New York theatergoers are unreceptive to musicals with choirs; witness “Sister Act”). Composer Alan Menken, who also created the music for “Sister Act” and “Newsies,” definitely knows his way around Broadway songs.
Yet as great as Raul Esparza can be — and he was magnificent in “Company” –– this does not seem to be the right role for him. Even when he’s sleazy — and his actions as the Rev. Jonas Nightingale are certainly reprehensible — he himself is never quite shady enough.
He also has a few asides to the audience, which feel like manipulative winks. It’s his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum, “Wicked”) who’s the nefarious operator behind the scenes.
Though she has a fine voice, she does tend to get overshadowed by others on stage.
One would have to be a serious force of nature to not be overshadowed by Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans, “Chicago”), who sings gospel as if she knows what it is to raise the roof of a church. Krystal Joy Brown (“Hair” on Broadway, “Castle” on TV), playing Ida Mae’s daughter Ornella, and Leslie Odom, Jr. (TV’s “Smash”), as Ida Mae’s son Isaiah, are all great.
The mother and daughter are part of the Angels of Mercy, the choir behind Jonas. Jonas and his traveling band are already banished from towns across the country. Their Mercedes bus breaks down, so they decide to pitch a tent in Sweetwater, an ironic name since the town is suffering a drought.
Jonas, a tomcat as well as a con artist, immediately flirts with the first pretty woman who crosses his path. Too bad Marla (Jessica Phillips, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”) is also the sheriff and not easily hoodwinked. She’s a widow with a disabled son, Jake (Talon Ackerman, “Bonnie & Clyde”), who believes in miracles. (Can you see the ending?)
It’s not a new yarn. Steve Martin starred in the 1992 movie of the same name, and Burt Lancaster was terrific as the swindler Elmer Gantry in the eponymous 1960 film. We know from the start that the sheriff and the fake preacher will become lovers.
The town is full of sweet, innocent rubes and something about that just feels far too cynical, as if people who live where corn grows are somehow inherently dumber than city dwellers and suburbanites.
Much of the play feels cynical, as if the audience is being set up all the time. Oh, there are some cute lines, such as when the self-aware Jonas sings, “My criminal record is so friggin’ checkered, it’s plaid.”
And when the sheriff has him led away in cuffs, he says to her, “Wow! Jailing someone after you sleep with him. I thought I had commitment issues.”
Esparza is very good when he gives furtive stares and sings about how people want to believe.
But when he actually says to the audience, “It’s all kind of pat, isn’t it?” one can’t help but want to shout, “Amen to that!”