Leap of Faith, according to an openly gay principal cast member, “Isn’t about religion; it’s about one’s faith that something’s coming your way that you’ve been hoping for.”
I spoke with Brad Anderson about the show just a few days before same-sex marriages were scheduled to resume in California after Proposition 8 was struck down as unconstitutional (the resumption of marriages was subsequently stayed by a higher appeals court until at least the end of this year). The veteran actor and dancer plays Tom in Leap of Faith, which is having its world premiere tonight at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
“Tom is a local in the poor, drought-stricken town of Sweetwater, Kansas,” Anderson said. “He grew up there and is a good old guy. He’s also living in the closet and a little bit afraid.” Anderson compared his character’s plight to the long-hoped-for establishment of equal marriage rights for GLBT people.
Leap of Faith is adapted from the underrated 1992 movie, which starred Steve Martin as a minister and con artist named Jonas Nightengale. Nightengale brings his touring tent revival to Sweetwater hoping to score big. Complications arise, however, in the form of a young disabled boy who desperately needs a real miracle and the boy’s suspicious mother. When real miracles begin occurring, no one is more surprised than Nightengale.
“It’s a nice, feel-good musical that lifts your spirit and your soul,” Anderson told me. The songs were written by 8-time Academy Award-winner Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Menken composed the score for the contemporary Disney classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. He and Slater last collaborated on the stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid and received a Tony Award nomination for it.
The production is being directed and choreographed by Tony-winner Rob Ashford. Anderson was in Ashford’s acclaimed revival of the musical Parade last year at the Mark Taper Forum. “I’ve known Rob for many years but we hadn’t worked together before Parade,” Anderson said. “Rob is great because he has a way — better than anyone I’ve worked with — of seeing the big picture in his head of what he wants.”
Leap of Faith is being headlined during its LA world premiere by two well-known and highly-regarded performers: Raúl Esparza and Brooke Shields. Esparza, who stars as Nightengale, has played gay or sexually-ambiguous characters on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret and Boy George’s Taboo. The actor acknowledged in 2006 that he is bisexual and has had relationships with women and men.
“He’s amazing,” Anderson notes of the Tony-nominated Esparza. “He is such a talent. He trusts himself and just jumps in and goes for it. He is, in a word, committed.”
Anderson is equally effusive of Leap of Faith co-star Shields. “First thing: she’s gorgeous. She’s also a lovely woman. This is her first time originating a role in a brand new musical and she’s very excited about it.” Shields drew raves from critics and audiences alike when she took roles originated by other actresses in Cabaret and Wonderful Town.
Leap of Faith is scheduled to play the Ahmanson through October 24 before moving to New York. A number of recent stage musicals adapted from motion pictures have been big hits (The Lion King, Hairspray) while others have fizzled (9 to 5, Cry-Baby). Anderson is hopeful. “You’ve got all these people working together to make the best show possible,” he said. “It’s going great.”
Anderson summed up the musical’s meaning for him: “No matter what type of religion you hold, or don’t, we all need faith. That’s what this show is about.”
For further information or to purchase tickets, please visit the Center Theatre Group's official website. For a sneak preview of the title song, click here.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.