Friday, January 28, 2011

BeLieve - Leap of Faith- Musical Review

Leap of Faith - Ahmanson Theatre - Los Angeles - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Janus Cercone with Glenn Slater, Direction and Choreography by Rob Ashford
Closed Oct. 24th 2010. This reviews a little late but there is hope this moves to Broadway

I almost didn't believe in Leap of Faith. Or didn't think I would. But this joyful new tuner made a solid first impression, with an enjoyable first act, making it an entertaining, if not completely original, new musical. But the grand creators were saving their power moves for the second act, which resurrected the show from a merely good musical to a potentially great one, and I found myself surprisingly moved and completely taken into Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith is a new musical based on the Steve Martin film that no one I know seems to have actually seen, but everyone has heard of. With new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (who recently did the new musical version of Sister Act that received less than stellar reviews in London), and starring Raúl Esparza (a known Broadway star, but unknown to the general public) and Brooke Shields (known friend of Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise), I was, to be honest, a little apprehensive. It sounded like a recipe for a nice but mediocre musical and that Raúl would never make his great Broadway original role debut. And while there are still some kinks to work out, and some editing to be done, particularly in Act 1, there's huge potential here for a 4.5/5 stars musical in the future, and an excellent Act 2 shows how great this whole Leap of Faith could be.

I've had my doubts with Alan Menken since he sadly lost his writing partner Howard Ashman after they created some of the most beloved tunes for Disney's animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), but Leap of Faith has many great catchy tunes, some with a gospel feel in the story of a fake preacher and his con-artist congregation who wind up stranded in a drought-ridden smalltown, and looking to dupe the desperate locals. It's essentially The Music Man meets 110 in the Shade but the cliched story didn't bother me at all since it's told well enough from a fantastic cast and some tuneful songs.

Raúl Esparza is simply explosive here, in a mesmerizing role as Jonas, a sleazy con-artist, somehow immoral and yet winning as the lead in the show. Tirelessly running around the stage and capturing the townsfolk (and our) attention, Jonas leads his band of cons through some staged soul-searching, all while trying to win the heart of naysayer Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields). Esparza confidently struts around the stage (sometimes in full sparkly gear as a disco ball) but layers of Jonas' own need for faith slowly reveals itself in wonderful interactions with Marva's son Boyd (Nicholas Barasch).

Young Nicholas Barasch (West Side Story) has the most beautiful voice, and somehow manages to combine stage kid professionalism with a skateboarder vibe that keeps his Boyd fresh and lovable.

A cast of spectacular voices surround Raúl, and it's nothing but heavenly. Kendra Kassenbaum, Krystal Joy Brown, Kecia Lewis-Evans (l-r, above), Leslie Odom Jr., all have stunning voices that is soul stirring.

Kendra Kassenbaum (Wicked) plays Jonas' co-conspirator and sister who manages the tight ship behind Jonas' showiness.

Kecia Lewis-Evans (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Rent) play mother and son who have different approaches to their belief in faith, and each sing with the power of some sort of deity behind them, no matter what you may believe.

Krystal Joy Brown (Hair), Bryce Ryness (Hair), and Brandon Wardell (Evil Dead: The Musical) nicely fill in smaller roles within the troupe, while a great ensemble including Katherine Tokarz (Rock of Ages), Brad Anderson (A Chorus Line) and Charlie Williams (Memphis) joins the powerful chorus in the many Menken written gospel type choral songs.

Rob Ashford's choreography gives the wheat fields set musical a certain calmness and grace that counters the high energy glittery sales pitch from the interloping cons. Admittedly, it's also hard to ignore Charlie Williams, usually front in centre in the choreography, and his muscular but graceful moves, as Deputy Wayne, assistant to the suspicious Sheriff Will Braverman (a nicely stoic Jarrod Emick, (The Rocky Horror Show)).

While I believe the musical, particularly in the first act, can be edited and nipped to become a tighter entity, making the entire show great, this production's other major downfall was sadly with one of the lead castings.

Brooke Shields brings an effortless and breezy loveliness to Marva, and is instantly likable. Shields singing voice however, while competent, sounds particularly untrained against the solid voices of her cast mates. Menken's songs aren't particularly easy here either, and the vocal range and power required is more than Shields could handle on our particular night (I've been told she has her better days).

In the end, Esparza's show, with a powerful killer end to Act 2. His chemistry with Shields is sweet, and she seems truly loved by the whole cast, but there's an imbalance of vocal power that hurts the show (especially since it can be so strong). Because while the story goes to a moment where the city cynic in me should be rolling my eyes, by the time the cast sings "If Your Faith Is Strong Enough", Esparza blows the house down with his "Jonas' Soliloquy", and the show ends off in the title song "Leap of Faith", it had truly earned my faith in the show.

Now I just hope the creative team can do the little necessary edits to pull in a tighter show, and the producers will have to make some choice decisions with the future of this show, but I truly believe this could be a fantastic edition to the Broadway landscape and have a long life. And I hope it happens because I can't wait to see it again. I believe it's gonna be great!

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