'Leap of Faith' requires a major one

Raul Esparza in "Leap of Faith" at the

Raul Esparza in "Leap of Faith" at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Sociocultural theses may be written about the season when Broadway got dead serious about Christianity. Not only do we have earnest, grandiose revivals of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," but here comes a true-believing musical, "Leap of Faith," flat-lined out of the charming and touching 1992 Steve Martin movie about a con man preacher.

The show, which has been surrounded by an assortment of rumors and incarnations since 2006, has arrived in director Christopher Ashley's skimpy, hard-driving production, unsure of its tone and unable to figure out how best to use its star, Raúl Esparza.

The actor -- who has been riveting in everything from "The Rocky Horror Show" to Stephen Sondheim, from TV comedies to Harold Pinter -- is working very hard here. The effort shows. He glowers. He struts. He performs a few strenuous moves a bit too strenuously as Jonas Nightingale, the charlatan and babe magnet who dupes needy Americans with promises of miracles.

How strange that this most charismatic artist suddenly doesn't have the charisma to sell a rainmaker/music man/Elmer Gantry character. Esparza almost seems too smart -- or perhaps just too grown-up -- for the show.

If so, this is hardly his fault. Despite the credentials of the creative team, the country/pop/gospel songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater ("Sister Act") are repetitious and forgettable. We keep being exhorted to "Rise Up" and characters are asked "are you on the bus or off the bus" until the metaphor drives off the road.

When the bus breaks down, Jonas, his kid sister/manager (a nicely hard-edged Kendra Kassebaum) and their Angels of Mercy choir decide to set up tent in poor, drought-stricken, small-town Kansas. The adaptation -- by Janus Cercone, who wrote the book for the movie, and Warren Leight -- conflate Jonas' love interest and the sheriff (Jessica Phillips). She is also the mother of the boy in the wheelchair (the accomplished Talon Ackerman). But the ensemble has too many subplots, almost all of them about daddy issues.

The crisis of faith in Kansas is awkwardly framed with a revival meeting on Broadway a year later. In these scenes, Esparza jokes with the audience. There are live TV monitors and characters in choir robes running up the aisle amid much lapping of elbows. It's one thing for the plot to be about desperate, seedy people. But the show shouldn't feel that way, too.


WHAT "Leap of Faith"

WHERE St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., Manhattan

INFO $47-$137; 212-239-6200; leapoffaithBroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE No miracles here

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