Confession: Raul Esparza is not one of my favorite actors. I’ve tried to warm to him. He’s hard working, talented, has some good moves, and sports an impressive resume. But I find his voice harsh and nasal, his stage presence somewhat menacing, and for me, he’s without charm. So it was with dismay that I contemplated Leap of Faith, which depends largely on Esparza’s magnetism to succeed. Still, you never know; performers will surprise you. Sadly, that isn’t the case here. A play about a fake faith healer who can con the rubes out of their money, and mesmerize an attractive woman into jumping into the sack in an instant, hasn’t a prayer when the star is just morose. Every time I looked at Esparza on stage, all I could think about was Richard Nixon intoning “I am not a crook.” I didn’t fall for it then, either.
The cause is not advanced by mediocre music by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, which does little to boost the uninspiring book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight. Based on the flop 1992 movie of the same name, the premise is that Jonas Nightingale (Esparza) has arrived in the drought and poverty stricken town of Sweetwater, intent on setting up a tent and fleecing the locals out of what little money they have left. He momentarily finds a foe in Marla McGowan (Jessica Philips), who’s what passes for the law in town. He seduces Marla, but promises not to use her crippled son Jake (Taylon Ackerman) in his act. Nightingale’s sister, Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) objects, sensing that there’s money to be made. Meanwhile, the leader of the gospel choir, Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) struggles with her own family issues when her son, Isaiah (Leslie Odom, Jr.) returns from divinity school and tries to convince his mother and sister, Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown) that Nightingale is a fraud.
It’s a shame that this production is so lackluster, since there are some very good performances. Kecia Lewis-Evans brings a lot of heart to a role that could have easily become a stereotype. Talon Ackerman is adorable, and totally convincing as the little boy who believes. The gospel choir sounds terrific. Kendra Kassebaum reminds me of the young Alison Pill. Both Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom, Jr. turn in the best performances of the evening. Their “Dancin’ In The Devil’s Shoes” number was sung and danced so well, for a few moments, it brought the production to life. Sergio Trujilla’s choreography was noteworthy.
I also appreciated the disco ball jacket worn by Esparza, as well as most of the rest of William Ivey Long’s costume design. I would implore director Christopher Ashley to reconsider having the cast run up and down the aisles in future productions. It’s distracting to the action on stage, and there’s a good chance someone may slip on a carelessly placed purse or jacket. I also found the rousing of the audience in the beginning of the show ineffective; those sitting in the back just couldn’t hear what was being said.
Most importantly, I would urge Esparza to view some tapes of the late great Reverend Ike. He advised his fans that he loved the rustle of paper money, but vowed that the jangle of coins made him nervous. His slogan was “You can’t lose with the stuff I use.” His act was total hokum, but extremely entertaining; he died possessing untold riches, including a Rolls Royce collection and an extravagant array of expensive clothing and jewelry. Reverend Ike was roundly criticized, but he loved being the center of attention, and enjoyed life to the max. Would that Jonas Nightingale had just a little of that fun in his delivery. Who knows? It might even be possible that Leap of Faith could have been saved.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Leap of Faith
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.