Broadway producers, apparently having exhausted all the hit films that could be adapted into stage musicals, have now taken to raiding the studio vaults for clunkers. How else to explain the arrival of Leap of Faith, a musical based on a 1992 flop starring Steve Martin as a charlatan preacher who brings his cash-sucking revival tent to a depressed, drought-ridden Kansas town? Granted, the premise seems a slightly more natural fit for the stage than recent film-based endeavors like Ghost or Spider-Man. After all, it’s easier to imagine the Rev. Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza) and his choir bursting into song. Composer Alan Menken, a veteran of spinning stage gold from cinematic straw (Little Shop of Horrors, Newsies), has written a rousing new score with frequent lyricist Glenn Slater. Many of Menken’s tunes are heaven-sent gems, particularly when Krystal Joy Brown, as the daughter of the choir leader and bookkeeper (Kecia Lewis-Evans), is belting them out. (She’s a newcomer worth watching.)
But there’s a second-hand quality to the show that’s hard to escape — and not because it’s based on a movie. This is a tale that’s as old as Elmer Gantry: A slick, cynical outsider swoops into a community of unsuspecting and gullible shills but winds up becoming a true believer himself, thanks in part to the love of a good woman who sees through his shtick but loves him anyway. Working with Warren Leight, original screenwriter Cercone has streamlined several aspects of the plot. In the film, Martin’s down-on-his-luck preacher falls for a local waitress (Lolita Davidovich) with a crippled son (Lukas Haas) while his behind-the-scenes gal Friday (Debra Winger) romances the local sheriff (Liam Neeson). Here, the preacher’s love interest becomes a female sheriff (Jessica Phillips, with a hint of country in her sweet singing voice) who has a wheelchair-bound son (towheaded Talon Ackerman) who yearns to walk again. You can see where all this is going, right?
Competently directed by Christopher Ashley with some lively choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show occasionally grapples with an interesting question: Can a seriously flawed man still be a vessel for God’s will, even for the miraculous? But while Esparza has a confident, commanding stage presence, he doesn’t seem oily enough in his early scenes to make his second-act moment of reckoning pay off. (It doesn’t help that his big 11 o’clock number, unfortunately titled ”Jonas’ Soliloquy” in an apparent homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, is one of the show’s weaker numbers.)
The show does brush on a thin veneer of documentary-style exposé — we see how a sham healer gathers telling details about his congregation to exploit during his revival service — but otherwise the story never strays from its highly conventional path. And for Broadway veterans, that path should seem especially familiar. Leap of Faith is The Music Man meets 110 in the Shade, with an overly pat ending that undercut’s the plot’s refreshing ambivalence about the path to salvation. B?
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)