Theater review: ‘Leap of Faith’

Even Raul Esparza's talent and charm can't save this show; that would take a real miracle.

“Leap of Faith” is the latest in the recent trend of religion-themed musicals on Broadway, joining “Sister Act,” “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and, of course, “Book of Mormon.” This one spreads the experience past the proscenium, transforming the orchestra and balconies of the St. James Theatre into a boisterous revival act. Camera operators roam the aisles, broadcasting the preaching and prosthelytizing onto mounted screens – actually, more like a megachurch than a traveling tent show. This setup promises a lot more than it actually pays out, much like the miracle-mongering at hand.

The story kicks off when the Jonas Nightingale and the Angels of Mercy bus breaks down outside of Topeka, Kansas. The conman at the helm decides his crew will have to set their stakes in the much smaller town of Sweetwater. The townspeople are on the verge of bankruptcy due to an ongoing drought. But Jonas believes that his shysters can still get enough money through a three-day revival to get back on the road. Central figures in the story are Sam Nightingale (Kendra Kassebaum), Jonas’ partner-in-crime sister, and Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), the bored town sheriff and predictable love interest. The lines are pretty clear on who’s good (the hopeful crippled child) and who’s not (the guy with his hand in your pocket). This could work if the two sides were evenly matched, but the play is too heavily wholesome and you never doubt the Nightingales won’t change their tune.

“Leap of Faith” offers flashy costumes, big gospel numbers and, of course, the requisite romantic storyline. Alan Menken’s rich music with Glen Slater’s lyrics goes a long way, but can’t quite compensate for stilted dialogue or an illogical book. We almost wish it would just go full camp; with a dash of dark humor and a little nudity, this could be a great cult classic. As it stands, the show could almost survive by virtue of standing pat – being no more or less than a ticket-buyer expects – but it won’t. It suffers fatally from a safe, predictable plot, and it can’t be saved by its potential or heart.

Read our interview with Raul Esparza for more insight on Jonas Nightingale and “Leap of Faith.”

‘Leap of Faith’
St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th Street
$47-$137
www.leapoffaithbroadway.com


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