Thursday, September 23, 2010

Moo With Me!

This week I saw one of the preview performances of Tony-winner Rob Ashford's Leap of Faith, a new musical at the Ahmanson Theatre based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Steve Martin.  The show stars Raúl Esparza as "faith healing" con man Jonas Nightingale, who gets stranded in the small, desolate town of Sweetwater, Kansas with his traveling gospel troupe, co-led by his sister Jane (played by Kendra Kassebaum).  Their plan to put on their act in Sweetwater gets complicated when Jonas meets a local waitress, Marva (Brooke Shields), and her lovable son Boyd (Nicholas Barasch).

The story was sweet and fun, if wholly as predictable as any about a con man with a soft spot.  The music was scored by Alan Menken, most famous for his Disney scores, and the lyrics contribute an upbeat gospel sensibility to the sometimes troubling events onstage.  Esparza is incredibly magnetic, and during a flubbed verse that occurred at my showing, he managed to ask the conductor to go back and start over, winning over the crowd with, "It's previews folks, look what you paid for," and later, "Wow, déjà vu!"  His scenes with the young Barasch are particularly winning, and the kid has an excellent singing voice (until puberty hits).  Shields excelled in her more tense scenes, but her vocal range did not do much justice to the music.  The supporting performances of Kassebaum, as well as Kecia Lewis-Evans and Krystal Joy Brown, brought much more impressive musicality.

I wonder how much retooling will have to be done before this play reaches Broadway.  Some parts dragged on too slowly, and made me long for the more interesting set pieces that bolster the middle section of the story.  In general there was a lot of comic sweetness to a potentially heavy subject matter, and I hope to be able to see the movie upon which it was based sometime soon.

Leap of Faith, running until 10/24 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

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