LEAP OF FAITH
May 4, 2012
Dark rimmed eyes flash and muscles tense when Jordan Nightingale (Raul Esparza) pitches his tent in the St. James Theater demanding to know who believes in God? A smattering of applause erupts -- and he acidly thanks the tourists. This is where the story begins--and like all good hucksters, he regales his herd with a tale of redemption and a renovated spirit.
The pages turn back to the day the bus broke down, bank books dried up and jail was only a county- line away. Right there, in the parched countryside of Sweetwater, the traveling tent show stops for three days. Plans go awry when the young, good looking sheriff, Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), proves to be a sharp shooter, and unfazed by Jordan's claims--at least for a few minutes.
A widow, her husband died in a car accident that forced her ten year old son, Jake (Talon Ackerman) in a wheelchair. Equally bruised by family loss, Jordan and Marla meet in front of his camper and test each other's vulnerabiltities in one of the show's most effective songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater "I Can Read You."
Jordan's sister, the tough but sweet Sam (Kendra Kassebaum)-- masterminds the business, while the big hearted gospel diva Ida Mae Sturdevant (Kecia Lewis-Evans)---oversees the Angles of Mercy, a free wheeling gospel choir. And even though the thrust stage jettisons Esparza's seismic personality into the audience, and actors praise the lord in the aisles right up to the balconies, Michael Kosarin's direction never explodes.
There is plenty of dance action, both set and intuited. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo manages quite well in coordinating the Angels. Shoulders rhytmically shake up and down in unison over pogo jumps, Motown routines and some Bo Diddly crroked knee, single foot hops. Even Esparza gets his James Brown on, shimmying his feet side to side, dropping into a split and jogging manically in place. Because of his kinectic brilliance, Esparza jolts the eye in his direction whenever he breaks into "moves." Too bad he didn't dance more. Less effective, is the large scalea, free-form modern dance and acroabtic sequences for the town folks.
Intent on protecting her son from the charlatan's claims, Marla incarcerates Esparza. Besides Esparza's tension filled attraction to Marla, there's Esparza and his new convert, Jake. The scenes between the deeply appealing Jake,and
Esparza are truly moving. You believe. Three strong gospel voices, Ida Mae, her daughter Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown)and Bible School Reverend son, Isaiah (Leslie Odom, Jr) are a fine match to Esparza's raw, solidly trained voice.
Despite the weakness of the book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, Esparza knits together an enduring cocktail of vulnerability and sass particularly in his final howl "Jonas' Soliloquy."
Yes, this show is predictable, as is Menken's country-inflect score. You know where "Leap of Faith" headed and where it will end up, but the ride is still mighty tasty whe Esparza is there to
light the way.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis