Want to make a ton of money? Peddle God to fools. Want to lose a ton of money? Invest in a Broadway turkey. You can’t have it both ways. It’s perfectly fine—even desirable—if your religion is crude and nonsensical, but a show as bland and confused as Leap of Faith is not going to make rich men of its producers (among whom are actual church leaders). The fake cash distributed by actors to audience members—so we may place it in the offertory baskets at Jonas Nightingale’s revivalist hoedowns—is all the green this wanly tacky production is likely to see.
Based on the engaging 1992 movie starring Steve Martin, Leap of Faith has many elements to beckon the musical-theater adapter: a charismatic antihero with showbiz in his veins, good-hearted locals, glitzy production numbers, a bit of romance and a winsome, disabled teen who believes. But this version—with tunes by the Sister Act team of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and a book cowritten by Warren Leight—never finds the right proportion of comic cynicism to wide-eyed spiritual wonder, foundering in a series of interchangeable song-and-dance numbers, tin-eared, mawkish dialogue and a generic gospel-country score that quickly evaporates from memory. Most problematic is the half-formed concept of framing the show as a triumphant prayer service in New York City, during which Jonas (Esparza) tells the story of how he lost and found the Lord while stuck in Sweetwater, Kansas. The device invites obtrusive direct-address speeches and kills narrative momentum.
Esparza (Company, Arcadia) is a fiendishly talented performer, but neither he nor the creative team has figured out who Jonas Nightingale is. In lieu of the sort of genial, effusive hucksterism Martin exuded, Esparza oozes low-grade sleaze and ennui. He’s too transparently fake and contemptuous to be convincing as a traveling evangelical. It wouldn’t take a miracle to heal Leap of Faith, but it would require a hell of a lot of rewriting and recasting.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote