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Sunday, October 24, 2010


After I waxed poetic about The Music Center/Center Theatre Group's productions, I figured a real review of Leap of Faith should follow.

Since I saw the show last week, I have been thinking about the music, plot, dance numbers and overall performances wondering why I am so drawn to the story.  There is so much I love about the show with one overwhelming factor leading the charge (that I finally recognized) - familiarity.  Its amazing that it took this long to figure out.  I realized that maybe the reason I feel this way about Leap of Faith is because it is very similar to one of my other beloved old-school musicals.  Leap of Faith, meet The Music Man.  Consider this:
A con-man comes to a smal town, falls for a local single woman, befriends a child who is has "special needs" and is changed because of this relationship (with the child).  The con-man isn't exactly forthright with the woman or the child about why he is really in the town or who he really is.  Then, someone outs this con-man and said con-man must own up to who he really is.  Somehow the con-man does something to make good with the people of the small town, helps the child he has befriended and eventually gets the girl.  
Not sure which show I'm describing? Of course you're right because it refers to both shows.

Robert Preston as Prof. Harold Hill
Raúl Esparza as Jonas Nightingale

So Leap of Faith (the musical) is based loosely on the film of the same name starring Steve Martin and though it has (almost identical) similarities, it isn't a rip off of The Music Man (film or musical).  Leap of Faith and The Music Man are very similar stories and you might think that the similarity ends there (at the plot) right?  Sort of.  If we take a look at the performances of the lead actors in these two musicals, you will find two, highly dynamic, remarkable actors who really carry the show they are in.  In The Music Man, the incomparable Robert Preston created the role of Harold Hill...he is incredibly charismatic and really, who wouldn't follow and want to believe in him?  Leap of Faith has an equally dynamic and multi-talented actor in Raúl Esparza who plays Jonas Nightingale.  Watching and listening to his character...who wouldn't want to follow and believe in him either?

Have I convinced you that the central storyline in Leap of Faith really is similar to The Music Man and that Harold Hill/Jonas Nightingale are the ones who really carry their respective shows?  When I think about The Music Man, I immediately think Robert Preston and then I think that though sweet and classic, the show really isn't anything without Preston. Actors come and go and while many have played Harold Hill, nobody could nail it like Preston did.  So when I think about the the entire production of Leap of Faith, the show too really succeeded because of Raúl Esparza

From the moment he walked onto the stage, dressed completely in black with sunglasses on, Esparza  convincingly carried himself as a smarmy, charismatic con-man.  This attitude mixed with the words he spoke only reinforced this character. When in the "tent" as the evangelist persona,  Esparza's inflections were spot-on.  Esparza's energy was undeniable and it was hard to tell if he put every ounce in his being to become Jonas or if Esparza was Jonas.

I have been aware of Esparza as an actor since I bought the off-Broadway cast recording of tick, tick...BOOM! in 2001 in which he played Jon (the semi-autobiographical show about Jonathan Larson).  Throughout the years, I have seen Esparza perform on TV and the internet from various roles.  Yet, when I saw him as Bobby in the revival of Company in 2006, I knew that I finally saw the quintessential Bobby.  He brought such passion and intensity to the role that I had not seen before or since.  His Bobby was darker and more multi-dimensional than I had seen before.  But I digress.  There are some performances that you know while sitting there in the audience that you are watching an actor playing a role.  There are others that completely transform while onstage into the role...whose performance you know is something special (i.e., Patti LuPone in Gypsy and Alice Ripley in Next to Normal; Raúl Esparza as Jonas Nightingale comes pretty close to making this list too).  Its quite a grand statement, I know, but the night I saw Leap of Faith, I thought he was just that good.  The interesting thing is that while both Gypsy and Next to Normal hold their place in theatre history because of their respective books, Leap of Faith doesn't exactly come close to being a Pulitzer Prize winning show.

There are aspects of Leap of Faith that weren't amazing - some of the characters were not developed enough which (to me) affected the outcome of the storyline.  When looking at the all of the characters in Leap of Faith, none is more developed than that of Jonas (which is good and yet...obviously bad).  Of the more major characters, every other is a distant second to Jonas - Marva, Sam, Boyd.  If it weren't for Ricky Sturdevant, there really wasn't any need to have Ida Mae in the show.  Would there be?  When Leslie Odom, Jr. was onstage, his stage presence was evident which is why the part was memorable.  The character though?  Ricky Sturdevant wasn't a weak character, only he wasn't strong either.  Brooke Shields played Marva McGowan I stated in a previous post, she was a perfect mix of strong and sensitive and could be considered to be a stabilizing force in the show; she played safe well.  I don't think it was Shields who was the problem though; she couldn't have played the role better, it was the character that way dry.  One could say that was purposeful...the dry, somewhat-boring character of Marva was a representation of the drought-ridden town of Sweetwater...yes, I think its stretching things too.

If the story was lacking, the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (respectively) and choreography by Rob Ashford were just incredible.  During the Rise Up number, while watching the dancers, I was so taken by the choreography, feeling that it was reminiscent of musicals from days-gone-by; it was gloriously old-school.  The rhythmic gospel music was a high point of the show that I can't get out of my head.  Days after seeing the show, I still find myself going back to CTGLA's YouTube page so I can hear at least some of the music and see bits of the choreography again.

I find great pleasure when musicals make their world premieres in Los Angeles then go on to be successful Broadway shows.  Shows like 13, The Drowsy Chaperone, 9 to 5: The Musical and Curtains made their mark here in Los Angeles, at Center Theatre Group before becoming darlings of Broadway.  With a little bit of revision, I am certain (and hopeful) that Leap of Faith will follow the steps of the Center Theatre Group's shows that came before it. 


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