Sunday, July 21

Theater Review: “Leap of Faith”

“Leap of Faith”
Ahmanson Theatre
Runs through Oct. 24


You may not believe in God, miracles or signs. You may not believe in fate. But after a “Leap of Faith,” you may come out a believer in belief itself.

If it sounds suspiciously like an ultra-religious ploy to convert the masses, it isn’t. Running through Oct. 24 at the Ahmanson Theatre, the world premier of the new musical starring Raúl Esparza and Brooke Shields is, above all else, a rollicking good time.

Jonas Nightingale (Esparza) is a traveling preacher ““ or so he puts on to make his living. He has a diverse choir of misfits that includes rocker dudes, a hooker and a devoutly spiritual mother, who back him up in his acts. He calls them the Angels of Mercy.

When the troupe’s bus breaks down in middle-of-nowhere-but-corn-fields Sweetwater, Kan., Jonas crosses paths with Marva (Shields) and her son Boyd (a very talented Nicholas Barasch). They make him question what he thought he was always sure of and discover what he didn’t dare think was true.

As unbelievably hackneyed as it sounds, somehow the play transcends (no pun intended) those surface elements. Even with the dramatic back-stories, somehow it all feels real, genuine … believable.

Based on the film starring Steve Martin and written by Janus Cercone, the production is blessed with an all-star team: music by Alan Menken (who gave us our favorite Disney animated film scores), lyrics by Glenn Slater, direction and choreography by Rob Ashford, backed by a host of other veteran Broadway designers.

The talented cast delivers with stellar powerhouse voices. Every one of them is star-caliber.

In fact, among the seasoned Broadway-ers, it was Shields who comes off with the weakest performance. Her pitch was not as precise, her voice not as big and bright.

But on some level, it works for her role as a tired but relentless 40-something waitress and single mom. And even her not-entirely-convincing acting becomes natural as she relaxes into the rhythm of things in the second half.

How could she not? The music and energy were downright infectious. If the play wants to tell us that at the end of the day what really matters is being able to uplift people, then it doesn’t just tell us, it shows us.

Esparza belts it out in one of the show’s big numbers, outfitted in leather trousers and a shiny disco-ball jacket, a giant lit-up cross hanging above him.

The music is a cool blend of gospel, country and honky-tonk. Sometimes it’s rolled up in the epic intensity of a big show tune, other times, just a sad ballad.

The sub-plot with Ricky (Leslie Odom Jr.), the devout son of one of the Angels of Mercy who newly joins the group and struggles to come to terms with the con act, is a treat ““ poignant and full of heart.

Robin Wagner’s warm set design is rural-elegant with the nice touch of dried corn stalks always visible in the background.

Also expect to be delighted by David Chase’s ballet numbers, interspersed between scenes.

As for the enduring skeptic, just hear the Angels of Mercy sing it to you, “Let it Loose,” and you’ll get it.

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