“Here’s the beauty part,” brays charismatic evangelist Jonas Nightingale in “Leap of Faith.” “If they don’t get their miracle, it’s their fault; they didn’t believe enough.” That sentiment handily describes the long-in-gestation musical — first produced at the Ahmanson in 2010 — that a motley clutch of producers has ushered into the St. James with a new director, book-writer, choreographer and leading lady in tow. Raul Esparza sizzles like a firecracker in this musicalization of the 1992 Steve Martin pic, but his wick is continually dampened by the pesky book, songs and staging.
While the familiar story could be compelling, as assembled here it’s a mass of cliches. The plot tells of Nightingale (Esparza), an itinerant con man, and the small-town Kansas folk he decides to fleece. Mix in a sadder-but-wiser local lass, Marla (Jessica Phillips, in the role played in Los Angeles by Brooke Shields), who sees through him, but allows herself to be wooed, and her young, wheelchair-bound son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), who blindly puts his trust in the visiting ne’er-do-well.
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The critical second-act confrontation — in which the boy’s unwavering faith forces Nightingale to confess he’s a fraud — is a close but inferior copy of a scene in “The Music Man” (with a row of tall cornstalks upstage, too). But then, a good deal of the proceedings seem to be ineffective borrowings from a clutch of superior stage musicals.
Alan Menken’s score is strong on rhythm but short on distinction, so much so that you can’t always tell which songs are reprises. The lyrics by Glenn Slater, Menken’s collaborator on “The Little Mermaid” and “Sister Act,” are problematic: Here we have Broadway’s first known rhyming of “flux” and “sucks,” and Slater also has a character describe the sickly Jake with the couplet “something’s wrong in his attic; psycho — what’s the word? — somatic.”
Neither director Christopher Ashley nor choreographer Sergio Trujillo (both of “Memphis”) adds much to the proceedings, which are overrun by singing and dancing revivalists running through the aisles, boxes and balcony of the theater, importuning audience members to smile for the closed-circuit videocamera, wave their arms and fill donation baskets. The sets and costumes from two of musical comedy’s finest designers, Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long, are uncharacteristically ordinary.
All this leaves the admirably hard-working Esparza with a show that is impossible to carry. The few bright spots in the evening are provided by the cast: Phillips, as the lady sheriff who can’t resist the bad guy, holds her own, while Ackerman is likable and sympathetic as her son. Singing honors go to Kecia Lewis-Evans (as the big-voiced bookkeeper), along with Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as her grown children. But for all that, this “Leap of Faith” never lands.