NEW YORK — The last musical of the official Broadway season comes into town like a huckster promising salvation. But it's the show itself that needs saving.
There's a strong musical somewhere in "Leap of Faith," which stars a soulful Raul Esparza and has some of Alan Menken's best songs.
But what opened Thursday at The St. James Theatre is sometimes confusing in its tone. Like its main character – the devious faith healer Rev. Jonas Nightingale, ready to scam residents of a down-and-out Kansas town – the musical is hard to pin down. There's too much misdirection.
The show is based on the 1992 film starring Steve Martin that was written by Janus Cercone. This time, she has teamed up with Warren Leight for a book that keeps the preacher's rhinestone jacket but plays up the romance.
"Leap of Faith" feels like many hands have tried to heal it over the years since it had its world premiere in late 2010 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It's both overwritten and yet underwritten. It breaks the fourth wall repeatedly and also pretends it hasn't.
It sometimes comments on itself and then falls back into being a conventional musical. It exposes the high-tech tricks that fraudulent preachers use – and then tries to pull its own magic tricks on us. It keeps tripping itself up.
"Do you even know when you're lying anymore?" the preacher is asked at one point.
"Not so much," he answers.
All that obscures a terrific Esparza and Jessica Phillips, who plays the widowed town official skeptical of Nightingale's motives. It takes away, too, from strong songs by Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater that include "I Can Read You," "Long Past Dreamin'," "Are You on the Bus?" and the thunderously good title tune.
The bones of a very good show are here if only the muscle was toned – or at least moving in one direction. Perhaps just too many layers accreted as the show passed over the years through directors Taylor Hackford to Rob Ashford to now Christopher Ashley.
The hard-sell starts as soon as the audience files into the theater, with a cameraman sweeping over the crowd and broadcasting his images on six screens. There are actors wearing red buttons that say "Rise Up" handing out fake dollar bills. At points during the performance, baskets are shoved into the crowd to retrieve the cash.
The revival meeting feeling continues with metal walkways connecting the stage and audience and even the loss of the theater's best seats to accommodate a ramp thrusting out into the crowd. Further blurring the boundaries, actors sit in the orchestra seats, waving their hands and shrieking with delight. The effect is, oddly, distancing – the opposite of the intention.
The play is mostly set in the drought-stricken town of Sweetwater, Kan., where Nightingale's traveling revival show has been stranded after their bus breaks down. Despite the threat of arrest and fines from the skeptical sheriff, Nightingale decides to put on a three-day event to pray for rain and wheedle money from the townsfolk.
Romantic sparks fly between Nightingale and the sheriff (Phillips), but she worries that her crippled son (Talon Ackerman) is being hoodwinked into believing that the preacher can help him walk again. Meanwhile, the preacher's sister (Kendra Kassebaum) warns him about losing sight of the payday.
In a secondary plotline, the traveling revival show's bookkeeper (Kecia Lewis-Evans) is visited by her son (Leslie Odom), a student at a Bible college who knows a scam when he sees one. He wants his mother and sister (Krystal Joy Brown) to walk with Jesus, not a crook.
Esparza throws himself into the role, finding the vulnerability and self-doubt in his sleazy character even as he prowls the ramps and slithers on his back to sell his lies. Phillips is a cool drink of water in her tight jeans and cowboy boots. She has a beautiful voice and the vocal skills of Lewis-Evans, Odom and Brown are also heavenly.
There are some nifty touches, including choir robes that descend on a rod for the quickest onstage costume changes in Broadway history, a killer duet between Brown and Odom, and the final thrilling scene. The connection between religion and love – leaps of faith, both – is nicely explored.
If only the show itself had enough faith to leap in one direction.