Leap of Faith” audaciously (or brazenly, you pick) co-opts the plot and characters of “The Music Man” to serve a serious-minded parable about personal spirituality. As much in sync with a heartland mentality as it will seem square and even perverse to sophisticates, Rob Ashford’s Ahmanson Theater premiere takes a big leap of faith that Raul Esparza’s galvanizing star turn and a muscular, appealing Alan Menken/Glenn Slater score can sell absolute certitude about modern-day miracles and the power of personal belief to a contempo audience.
Esparza’s Rev. Jonas Nightingale is Harold Hill to Sweetwater, Kansas’ version of River City, a dour burg bowed low by a yearlong drought and 20% unemployment. His nightly tent revival pushes the Lord’s healing power through the gospeleering Angels of Mercy, whose anthemic “Rise Up!” and “Last Chance Salvation” will set the crustiest secular humanist’s toes to tapping.
This unabashed charlatan earns the ire of the local sheriff (Jarrod Emick, stern as a biblical prophet), while the seminarian son (Leslie Odom Jr.) of choir leader Ida Mae Sturdevant (Kecia Lewis-Evans) sows discontent backstage, unpersuaded by her defense that “we all come to God in different ways.”
Between the warring forces stands Marian the librarian — um, sorry, Marva the waitress (Brooke Shields), with redheaded Opie-like son (Nicholas Barasch), who’s maimed not by a thick lisp but by leg paralysis from the auto accident that killed his pa. She’s been disappointed in love and can’t trust man or God anymore; you know the spiel.
The 1992 film of “Leap of Faith” keeps Marva on the sidelines, concentrating on the high-tech scamming by which Jonas and his sidekick ferret out town secrets they can parlay into God’s revealed word. A refusal to put a finger on Jonas’ personal demons ends the pic on an unsatisfyingly ambiguous note.
Screenwriter-turned-librettist Janus Cercone hacks away at her old work with a vengeance, and with Slater’s oddly credited assistance. Now it’s sidekick Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) who’s the plot appendage, and the con game sits in the back pew while the arrogant Jonas’ spiritual crisis, and possible redemption through Marva, are placed in the pulpit.
Esparza’s specialty is investing everyday types (Bobby in “Company,” Charlie in “Speed-the-Plow”) with psychic pain worn on their sleeve. He’s down with all the extravagant Billy Graham patter and Billy Sunday moves, but equally, sincerely committed to Jonas’ search for divinity in a world that’s left his soul dead. The final soliloquy showdown with the Almighty makes “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” feel like the Ascot Gavotte, wrapping up a gutsy performance about which no spectator will be neutral.
Shields’ no-nonsense normality offers welcome counterbalance to Esparza’s fireworks. Pretty enough to attract a drifter’s eye but ordinary enough to be plausibly stuck in Sweetwater, she tempers the Broadway glee of too-shiny moppet Barasch, and carries off her lovely let-me-be ballad “Long Past Dreamin'” (a Hit Parade topper if this were 1951) with plaintive conviction.
Internal contradictions suggest multiple hands laboring at rushed changes. Emick and Kassebaum seem impatient for the songs and scenes they were promised when cast; the choir’s moral arguments are uncertainly shaped, and Ashford’s balletic transitions between scenes — pastel couples in lifts and leaps — are boringly run-of-de Mille (Agnes, that is).
But Donald Holder artfully lights Robin Wagner’s spare but evocative set (there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, with dead corn as low as an elephant’s toe). There’s variety in Menken’s gospel and C&W melodies, and nimble wit in Slater’s words, as well as an overall respect for the subject matter absent from their brassy vulgarization of “Sister Act.”
But who will heed the call? It’s no spoiler to admit that “Leap of Faith” brings various miracles and conversions into play as it claps and shouts to its conclusion. “The Color Purple” kept its religion under its choir robes to appeal to a crossover audience. Whether theatergoers in Los Angeles and beyond will be receptive to the in-your-face sermonizing of “Leap of Faith,” God only knows.