Sweetwater is an ironically named small town in the middle of America. In the throes of a merciless drought, crops are failing, foreclosures are looming, and people are looking hope. That is, until Jonas Nightingale ( Raul Esparza) and his Angels of Mercy Choir come to town. Stuck in Sweetwater until their tour bus can be repaired, the travelling revelers pitch their tent on the outskirts of town, ready to do battle with Satan, glorify the Lord and pick up some local coin from the unsuspecting simple folk of Sweetwater. Sam ( Kendra Kassebaum), the company road manager believes targeting Sweetwater is a mistake. But Sam's limelight objections are easily overruled by her headlining brother.
New to The Angels of Mercy Choir is Ricky ( Leslie Odom Jr.), God-fearing, silken voiced tenor and son of the choir’s powerhouse lead vocalist Ida Mae ( Kecia Lewis-Evans). Ricky is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, preaching the gospel while Ida Mae is simply overjoyed at finally having her son at her side.
When Jonas ventures into town to gage the level of gullibility among the residents of Sweetwater, he quickly sees how easy a mark the town will be. And in a diner at the center of town, Jonas encounters who he knows will be one of his greatest cynic, waitress Marva McGowan ( Brooke Shields). Marva is a widow and a pragmatist, which of course means Jonas immediately falls for her. But Marva also has a young paraplegic son Boyd ( Nicholas Barasch), who has faith he will one day walk again.
Sowing seeds of hope becomes very complicated for Jonas if he plans on landing the girl, without destroying the impenetrable faith of her son. Ricky begins to have serious doubts about how his mother’s traveling ministry ‘reaches out” its congregations, causing dissension in the ranks of the choir. Finally, Sheriff Will Braverman ( Jarrod Emick) is the only other critic among the townspeople of Sweetwater. He clearly see the tent revivals as a scam to trick people into donating money they can’t afford; money that would be better spent on the towns best real hope, the aging drill that he believe will one day go deep enough to hit water.
The skeptical and the hopeful, those passing through and those who call Sweetwater home, must all re-examine with whom and in what they will place their faith.
Director / Choreographer Rob Ashford has assembled a fine production in Leap of Faith. He makes an interesting choice in using dance as a key element in the transitions, as well as in drawing the difference between the travelling entourage and the residents of Sweetwater. In fact, the ensemble numbers were clearly the “star” of the show. The energy and organized chaos of the ensemble number worked very well, without abandoning the underlining drama of the central plot.
This company of performers brought the house down with every single number, and the showstopper “Are You on the Bus?” drove the second act straight to critical mass. The show’s featured vocalists Jarrod Emick, Nicholas Barasch, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Krystal Joy Brown and of course leading man Raul Esparza, performed to well-deserved thunderous applause, with the superstar of the night being Leslie Odom Jr. Holy smokes that guy is good! The versatility, control and stamina of these performances were pretty incredible.
Now, allow me to knit pick on two points.
While I recognize the logical choice to juxtapose of the quiet, small town life with the restless high energy of city folk, the quieter duets and solos were, in fact the least interesting musically. Numbers like “Long Past Dreamin’” and “People Like Us” needed a kick in the pant to be anything more than exposition. It feels like that could have been helped with a little more attention in the staging.
Based on the Steve Martin movie and the book by Janus Cercone with Glenn Slater, and lyrics by Glenn Slater, "Leap of Faith" has something to say to all of us, whether you are the skeptic or the believer. The musical is a successful production and a cautionary tale about hope and redemption. Audiences are sure to be quite entertained and engaged, right up to its inevitable cathartic finale.
Leap of Faith is running now through October 24, 2010 at:
(at the Music Center downtown Los Angeles)
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ticket Information: 213-628-2772
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz