a theatre, film & pop culture review
That 1992… What a year! So many cinematic treasures! So many musical moments! So much Menken!
Disney super-star composer Alan Menken offered us both an über-flop and cult favorite in Newsies and a prince of a blockbuster ‘toon with Aladdin in 1992. But gosh darn it, that just wasn’t enough for one year. Menken decided 1992 was too good to stop there with the musical-movie/movie-musical madness. And so, last year, he brought everyone’s favorite singing nuns to The Broadway with his Tony Award-nominated musical adaptation of Sister Act (that oddly incorporated none of the 1992 film’s memorable musical moments). But he didn’t stop there either: This season, after transferring his beloved dancin’ newsboys to the big stage just one month ago, he not-so-tunefully tackled the 1992 Steve Martin vehicle, Leap of Faith.
It’s a random movie-to-musical selection, but it’s from the magial year of 1992, so we’ll just have to go with it. Leap of Faith, the film, was also a slightly odd choice for comedian-goofball Steve Martin who, playing a preacher-man fraudulently “healing” the vulnerable masses, displayed a surprising restraint despite the inherent ostentatiousness of the role. What started off as a semi-dark satire about a traveling ministry’s con-methods quickly devolved into earnest uplift, to the mixed response of critics. The musical, turning up the feel-good antics a notch (or ten) probably won’t be received any better.
But back to Maestro Menken for a moment. With his Sister Act, though Menken didn’t create the most memorable of scores, there were a couple of standouts, which one cannot say of his latest effort. Leap of Faith mixes derivative pop-gospel with edgeless musical theatre rock and is paired with banal lyrics by Glenn Slater (who wrote those for Sister Act the musical as well and — get this — Love Never Dies, the Phantom sequel so sinfully bad its Broadway transfer was officially cancelled after being announced twice). Sadly, neither writer seems to be aiming for anything above musical theatre mediocrity with this one.
And as with Menken’s Newsies, not a whole lot of note has changed during the screen-to-stage adaptation. A few of the characters and relationships are tweaked — the sheriff, for example, played in the film by Liam Neeson, now pulls double duty as a love interest (Jessica Phillips) for the charming conman — but Warren Leight faithfully (heh) maintains Janus Cercone’s original story of redemption and personal healing.
Christopher Ashely, who directed the delightfully vapid Xanadu and the tightly formulaic crowd-pleaser Memphis, sufficiently moves through the songs with the help of the gospel-gesturing movements by Sergio Trujillo (also of Memphis). And there’s a nice little attempt to bust down that pesky fourth wall by making the theatre audience and the revival audience one in the same: a few TVs are mounted in the theatre, whilst a “cameraman” films it all — Jonas’s tricks and inevitable exposure as a fraud, audience (real and actors) reactions — in real time. But it all feels so ho-hum, especially when imagining what the show could have looked like in its Los Angeles tryout well over a year ago as directed-choreographed by current Evita choreographer and How to Succeed helmer, Rob Ashford (for one, the movement would have been more fluid, smoothly infiltrating the entire show, rather than popping in abruptly whenever a choral number sounds).
But even Ashford couldn’t have made musical theatre magic out of this uninspired adaptation. What’s more, perhaps the biggest misstep here is one of casting — and a surprising misstep at that. A tremendous talent, Raúl Esparza should be perfect as the beguiling con artist in a super-shiny suit (hats off to costumer designer William Ivey Long’s delightfully tacky togs), but he never quite nails the mesmerizing outlandishness of Nightingale’s over-the-top preacher-performances. When we should be dazzled, we’re simply entertained, because Esparaza’s modus operandi is more subtle allure and low-key humor (see his performance in Company) and darker shades (Homecoming). He’s been with the show since the out-of-town tryout, so it’s not a matter of growing into the role; it’s a matter of not fitting into the role in the first place, because it’s clear that Esparza is working hard up there to win us over.
But no, Jonas Nightingale calls for a performer who devours the stage with his preaching prowess and captivates with outsized charisma. One hoped Esparza could pull it off, but from entrance one, it’s impossible not to wonder why Norbert Leo Butz hadn’t been cast instead. Even looking within the cast, one finds a stronger example of the hypnotizing magnetism that Nightingale needs: Leslie Odom, Jr. (of Smash fame) as pastor-in-the-making Isaiah utterly transfixes with his silky-smooth voice and even smoother dance moves. Whenever he’s center stage, he owns it, making one understand how revivalists could convince their vulnerable, desperate flock to give what little they have.
But enough about Leap of Faith. After all, it’s only a matter of months before Menken selects his next 1992 cinematic inspiration for the stage. Might I suggest The Crying Game?