BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
So a charismatic con-artist sings and dances into a jerkwater town where he intends to make a bundle while wooing a local authority figure with a disabled younger relative ... sorry, folks, it’s not “The Music Man,” but “Leap of Faith,” a new musical that premiered Thursday at the St. James Theater.
What’s not so new and even sorrier is the musical’s familiar story based on an old Steve Martin movie about a bogus preacher and his hallelujah caravan who pitch a tent in a drought-stricken community and appeal for rain and dollars … and shades of “110 in the Shade.”
A Mephistophelian-looking Raul Esparza stars as the cynical Jonas Nightingale. Exploiting the locals, Jonas quickly seduces Marla, the county sheriff and widowed mom of Jake, a 13-year-old in a wheelchair expecting a healing miracle.
Flatly framed into a musical by original screenwriter Janus Cercone and the estimable Warren (“Side Man”) Leight, “Leap of Faith” offers a tiresome series of Bible-thumping clichés and improbable events.
For instance: After blasting Jonas in sarcastic songs like “Fox in the Henhouse” and “I Can Read Yo u,” Marla then jumps into bed with him. Nor can this sheriff somehow dissuade her disabled son Jake from attending the nightly revivals that Jonas and his gospel-shouting company are throwing … she could hide his wheelchair, maybe?
Oh, but that’s not all for plot. The miracle show’s hearty but conflicted choir leader and bookkeeper, Ida Mae, is visited by her disapproving son Isaiah, a divinity student who labors to expose Jonas’ charlatan outfit. Meanwhile, the gullible yokels sing hosannas.
Speaking of outfits, Esparza sports glittering attire, courtesy of designer William Ivey Long, while Jonas, his equally cynical baby sister and their travelling salvation show sing and shout and dance and clap and holler and testify through the endless likes of quasi-inspirational numbers like “Rise Up!,” “Step Into the Light,” “Dancin’ in the Devils Shoes” and “If Your Faith Is Strong Enough.”
Much of this music is downright handsome, since the ever-melodic Alan Menken composed it, but the gospel stuff sooner than later turns monotonous, especially since it not sincerely motivated. The nicest selections are a wistful “Long Past Dreamin’” plaint for Marla and a propulsive “Are You on the Bus?” ensemble number. The lyrics by Glenn Slater sometimes are neat (“A fox like you don’t fool a chick like me”) and sometimes are banal (“If I believe in you, can you believe in me?”).
With his hooded eyes and sleazy air, Esparza obviously appears thoroughly corrupt as Jonas, but perhaps that’s what the writers and director Christopher Ashley desire so that his inevitable redemption seems doubtful. If his dubious character is not palatable, Esparza burns with energy and sings like the blazes.
Jessica Phillips gives the supposedly prudent pushover Marla personal conviction and her songs a smoky country-western resonance. Kecia Lewis-Evans lifts up a powerfully beautiful voice as Ida Mae and a personable Leslie Odom, Jr. makes the crusading Isaiah into more of a tonic than a pill. A very hard-working ensemble injects much jubilance into their music and enthusiasm into their performances.
For all of everyone’s professional heat, however, the retreaded material never catches fire. Although Ashley’s staging is aided by designer Robin Wagner’s typically nimble setting, which thrusts over the orchestra pit and into the stage boxes, the director has trouble adjusting the script’s confusing focus as it shifts between a revival meeting in Manhattan and the principal story set in Kansas.
With so many fresh productions of enjoyable musicals both old and new like “Evita,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and Menken’s own lovable “Newsies” available for customers, the misbegotten “Leap of Faith” doesn’t stand a chance on Broadway.
“Leap of Faith” continues at the St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.leapoffaithbroadway.com.