Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Sin & Dance

The 1992 movie Leap of Faith wasn't very well-received by audiences or critics upon its release, with more than a few calling its story of miracles performed by a questionable man of God (played by Steve Martin) in a small, drought-ridden town heavy-handed. I admired it, though, for depicting well the religious truth that God can — and often does — work miracles through what we might judge to be the most tainted hands and souls.

The film didn't do well at the box office and isn't very well remembered today, so it would seem an unorthodox choice for a big budget, Broadway-bound musicalization. Such projects rely primarily on name recognition and a built-in audience's love for the source material. However, the involvement of eight-time Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken, Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Rob Ashford, and stars Raúl Esparza and Brooke Shields have certainly piqued people's interest.

Leap of Faith, the musical, had its world premiere before a star-studded audience (including Glee's Matthew Morrison, Neil Patrick Harris, most of the male stars of Modern Family, Garry Shandling and Mario Lopez) Sunday night at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Despite excellent production values and a very capable cast that also features Broadway heavy-hitters Jarrod Emick, Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans and Dennis Stowe, the show is a mixed bag at this stage that ignores a fundamental commandment: good theatre does not a religious revival make.

Those who found the movie heavy-handed or preachy will find the stage version even more so. The musical has nothing but religious fervor and conversion on its mind, not only for the protagonist but everyone else as well. At times, Jonas Nightingale (the faux evangelist played by 4-time Tony nominee Esparza) even speaks directly to audience members, attempting to elicit an "Amen" here and a "Hallelujah" there. Esparza is admirably passionate in the role but should be reined in more by Ashford; the 11th-hour "Jonas' Soliloquy" goes on too long and Esparza goes over the top emotionally. Subtlety is not a gospel value in this production.

Brooke Shields, God bless her, is the one performer who keeps this Leap of Faith grounded. While her singing voice is not the best, especially at its lower register, Shields delivers the most authentic performance in the production as Marva, a jaded waitress with a disabled son (Nicholas Barasch, a talented teen with a great voice). Unlucky in love, she naturally finds herself drawn to the slimy but knowing Nightingale. Shields, to her credit, doesn't make Marva a victim. It's a strong turn by a longtime model-actress better known for film and TV roles.

Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have crafted a serviceable if generally unmemorable song score, although opening number "Rise Up" (accompanied by, for lack of a better description, a "drought ballet"), the tongue-in-cheek "Hotline to Heaven" and the climactic title song make an impression. Slater — who prior to this authored the dreadful lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies — is obviously more comfortable with the gospel and country-western styles employed here.

The mostly African-American cast members (including the aforementioned Lewis-Evans and Stowe) who make up Nightingale's "Angels of Mercy" choir are awesome vocally, and likely don't need electronic amplification even in a house as large as the Ahmanson. When a female trio is employed at the start of Act II, their impressive voices are over-miked to decibel-rattling levels. I wanted to yell out from my aisle seat in the orchestra, "I'm right here, stop screaming at me!" They wouldn't have heard me, of course. Such is the eardrum-shattering nature of modern musical theatre.

Leap of Faith does have its share of genuinely moving moments, most of them courtesy of Ms. Shields. These are ultimately what will resonate most with audiences, not the lukewarm songs or simplistic theological conundrums. The show's best visual effect is wisely saved for last, and it is joyously impressive. It may not take a proverbial leap of faith to enjoy this musical, but it can't hurt either.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting. . .love to watch it soon=)


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