Political Culture: How to Take a “Leap of Faith” … and Fall Flat on Your Ass

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

As a disastrous new show stumbles toward Broadway and “Glee” rebounds from its worst episode, can issues of religious belief inspire decent musical theatre? Jon Cummings has his doubts.

The last couple weeks have been tough for the creative minds behind a pair of musical-theatre ruminations on faith and doubt. On the tube, last week’s episode of Glee attempted to explore the tensions between religiosity and atheism as New Directions’ gay fashion plate, Kurt, watched his father cling to life following a heart attack. The trauma exposed all sorts of faith-based divisions among the choir – Christians versus Jews, the black church versus the white church, the certain versus the skeptical. But over the course of an hour, the episode’s spirituality proved no match for its superficiality – reaching its nadir when it placed God in the hands of a angry sinner, the football star Finn, who vented his wrath at prayers unanswered (or answered too well) by de-contextualizing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

The show offered numerous bile-inducing elements, but its worst choice by far was offering up Sue Sylvester (who’s always wrong, but usually deliciously so) as a chip-on-her-shoulder atheist. It was a chump move, pure and simple, and couldn’t help but tip the scales of the audience’s sympathies toward the more devout characters. You can argue all you want about the role of God in the public schools, but one thing’s for sure – He sure as hell has no place on Glee.

Meanwhile, just as Glee’s epic fail was being prepped for the airwaves, a high-profile musical adaptation of Steve Martin’s 1992 film Leap of Faith celebrated its world premiere at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, its gospel choir repeatedly entreating the show’s characters and patrons to “Rise Up!” and embrace its alchemy of tent-revival uplift and con-game chicanery. But that theme quickly proved ironic, as the show landed with a resounding thud that’s bound to leave a hole in the coming theater season.

Of all the spaghetti-against-the-wall hits and misses that have characterized the films-into-musicals trend, Leap of Faith seemed a decent candidate to stick – which makes its failure all the more disappointing. The film, while artistically at least somewhat successful, was not a hit – leaving plenty of room for book co-writer Janus Cercone (who also wrote the film) to tinker with plot and characterization without risking the wrath of too many devotees. Meanwhile, the show’s foundation in gospel, culture clashes and hucksterism seemingly offered tremendous opportunities for joyous music and humor … particularly considering the participation of composer Alan Menken, who has succeeded in this realm so many times before. And the presence of Broadway go-to guy Raul Esparza and model/actress/Tom-Cruise-attackee Brooke Shields in the lead roles provides ample star power.

Unfortunately, most of the choices made by Cercone and her creative team have been ill-conceived, from plotting to casting to some truly horrendous choreography — changes that nullify the movie’s strengths and fail to erect anything of significance in their place. And Menken doesn’t rise to the standard of his best work (Little Shop of Horrors, the Disney princess musicals), instead settling for the mediocrity of his more recent score for Sister Act, the Musical. That banal showcase for fake clerics on the make, not coincidentally, also teamed him with Leap of Faith lyricist Glenn Slater.

The film had provided Martin with one of his meatier mid-period roles as Jonas Nightengale, an evangelist/con man whose Angels of Mercy caravan breaks down in a podunk farm town that’s desperate for rain. Jonas and his crew – led by his tech-wiz assistant Jane (originally played by Debra Winger) — pitch their tent and commence suckering the local rubes out of their paychecks with tightly orchestrated “miracles” and hysterical promises of salvation. But Jonas and Jane succumb to the sincerity of a pair of locals – his a waitress with a crippled younger brother, hers a sheriff bent on escorting Jonas out of town – and both begin to recognize the ill consequences of their frauds, even as Jonas’ preaching begins to spark miraculous events even he can’t control. Will the boy ever walk again? Will the skies ever open again? The answers seem inevitable, but the way the film arrives at them is at least mildly surprising.

Martin’s performance was, of course, the film’s centerpiece – and the role was a perfect fit for his sarcastic brand of latter-day vaudeville hijinks. Though much of what went on around Jonas was preposterous, in Martin’s hands his talent for posing as a “man of the people” while charming and swindling the townsfolk was utterly believable. And even though the days of the traveling religious jamboree were almost gone by 1992, the scandals involving televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were still fresh in Americans’ memories upon the film’s release. As a result, its questions about morality and salvation – and whether one can find the former in a charismatic church, or buy the latter with cash – were particularly relevant to the moment, even if they proved too discomfiting to attract a wide audience.

Almost 20 years later, Leap of Faith‘s tent-revival setting is even more anachronistic – and Cercone makes matters worse by updating Jonas’ persona from Martin’s plaid-jacketed, used-car hustler type to Esparza’s sleek-suited, Gordon Gekko, “God … for want of a better word … is good” type. I suppose it makes sense on one level – the Wall Street banker is today’s loathsome swindler of choice – but it renders Jonas’ easy ability to woo the hicks entirely unbelievable. Likewise, the members of the almost-all-black Angels of Mercy gospel choir are portrayed so one-dimensionally they’re virtually stereotypes – the tattooed tough guy, the whore, the guy who’s too old for this shit, the plus-size belter who’s mama to the whole crew – but they’re all thoroughly modern, urban fish who seem completely out of water in Sweetwater, Kansas.

Meanwhile, the residents of Sweetwater are treated even more cruelly. They arrive onstage in calico dresses and seersucker slacks, dancing a slow-moving, awkwardly staged ballet that comes off as a poor man’s version of the Agnes de Mille centerpiece of Oklahoma! From that point forward, everything the rubes do and say seems trapped in the kind of vapid, faraway past to which conservatives say they’d like to “take America back.” Particularly distressing is Shields’ put-upon waitress/mom Marva, whose three vocal solos bring the show to a grinding halt, and her golly-gee-whiz son (no longer brother) Boyd, played by Nicholas Barasch without a shred of the gravity or depth that Lukas Haas originally brought to the character. They, like their neighbors, behave like Dust Bowl refugees for whom the 1940s, much less the 2010s, never arrived — with the result that when the locals and the Angels of Mercy share the stage, Jonas and his cohorts seem like they’ve stepped not out of a broken-down bus, but out of a time machine.

Esparza, surprisingly, is no help. He was so brilliant a couple years ago in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow on Broadway, playing a slick Hollywood producer with a callous-yet-somehow-ingratiating demeanor that the actor should have bestowed upon the huckster Jonas Nightengale, but hasn’t. Instead he focuses on Jonas’ cynicism and self-confidence, creating a character who assumes that the marks for his cons will naturally come to him. He speaks in a dull (if fast-paced) monotone, and exudes none of the hard-sell charisma one would imagine was required of a roving revival preacher, back when those guys actually existed.

In fact, through most of Leap of Faith Esparza acts like he’d rather be anyplace else – perhaps he recognizes the show’s going nowhere, and is just biding his time until the L.A. run closes at the end of next week. Meanwhile, Shields’ feeble singing voice, Barasch’s let’s-put-on-a-show shallowness, and Menken’s slight songs play like community-theater rejects, not linchpins of a supposedly Broadway-bound extravaganza. There’s not a single authentic moment that passes among the three lead actors, spoken or sung, and the show can’t help but crumble around that hollow core.

Leap of Faith does come alive, briefly, at the three moments when those revival meetings finally take place. The gospel songs are fine, the singing energetic, and Esparza appears each time to have received a syringe full of adrenaline. Still, even at those moments director-choreographer Rob Ashford’s staging is manic and disjointed, and the best lines frequently are stepped on or swallowed.

Cercone and Slater made a number of plotting mistakes during the transfer from cinema to stage – the most egregious being the elimination of the romance between Jonas’ assistant (now his sister) and the local sheriff, who is now rendered nothing more than a buzzkill who can’t even keep his deputy in line. They did get one thing right, however: the addition of the young, black preacher Ricky, son of the choir’s big-mama figure, who foments rebellion among the singers after seeing the moral bankruptcy in Jonas’ shtick. As played by Leslie Odom, Jr., Ricky gets one of the show’s best songs and eventually becomes the show’s moral center.

The success of the Ricky character, and the failure of nearly everything else about Leap of Faith, led me to imagine a radical shift that might someday make this story relevant again: to move the scene from rural Sweetwater to urban Detroit, to change Jonas Nightengale’s race, and to replace every instance of the word “rain” with “jobs.” After all, questions about faith and doubt, about the religious and the secular, about sincerity and swindling, are still all around us – but, as with most endeavors, in the field of moral relativism all the action is in the cities. Those rural folk, with their tea parties and their Obama-as-Joker signs and their gun racks, seem so damn sure of themselves these days; what do they need with Jonas Nightengale when they’ve got Sarah Palin blowing smoke up their asses?

As for the current production … well, the nature of an out-of-town tryout is to figure out what’s wrong with a show so it can be tinkered with and perfected on the way to Broadway. Leap of Faith has already been through workshops and creative re-directions — the wonderful Sutton Foster was initially slated for Shields’ role, Taylor Hackford once was attached to direct, and recently there’s been talk of Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza) replacing Shields. But this show is beyond tinkering — it’s an ungodly mess, and it’s difficult to imagine how little might remain once everything awful is excised. Even if you do someday find yourself in a Broadway theater for a performance of Leap of Faith – once investors attach themselves to a show, sometimes the momentum toward a New York opening becomes irreversible – don’t be surprised if you find yourself at some point obeying the musical’s pleas to “rise up” … out of your chair, to the end of your row, and straight up the aisle toward the exit sign.