The recently ended Broadway season certainly saw its share of musical flops, notably Lysistrata Jones and Bonnie & Clyde. Although each of those shows had its champions, I was not among them, and wasn't all that sorry to see them close.
Now comes Leap of Faith, the biggest flop of the year, at least in financial terms. And this one kind of breaks my heart, because the show really won me over, despite its considerable flaws. Yes, Leap of Faith essentially has the same plot as both The Music Man and 110 in the Shade: charming conman comes to town. The townspeople buy into his flimflam, except for the local single lady. Predictably, the conman and the single lady fall in love. Well, how many original stories did Shakespeare tell? For me, it's always about the quality of the execution.
In the case of Leap of Faith, I found the execution to be very professional and often inspired. The show starts with an ambitious and energetic opening sequence that neatly introduces the characters, sets the scenario, and establishes a tone of joyous celebration that the rest of the show ably delivers upon.
No, Leap of Faith is no masterpiece, but it is an honest attempt at crafting a musical that's about people, as opposed to spectacle or effects. (cough, cough...Ghost...cough, cough...) As I sat watching Leap of Faith, I marveled at how much more real and appealing the characters seemed here than in those other two movie-to-musical mediocrities still limping along from last season: Sister Act or Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
The show's credits list Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay to the 1992 Steve Martin movie upon which the show is based, as co-author of the libretto, but I attribute the depth of characterization here to the presence of Tony-Award-winning playwright Warren Leight (Side Man), who demonstrates a knack for realistic dialog and for depicting believable and sympathetic people. Leight only has one other musical to his credit -- the 1985 Ed Koch bio-tuner Mayor -- and yet there's something skillful here in the way the book and the songs are woven together. Of course, this is also the work of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, whose work here is miles above their score for the aforementioned Sister Act.
Most of the flop musicals this season have had outstanding performances, and Leap of Faith is no exception. Yeah, there's Raul Esparza, who has some genuinely stunning moments throughout the show, including his showstopping 11 o'clock number, "Jonas' Soliloquy." But throughout the show, his diction came in and out, and I couldn't understand what he was saying in many of his songs. (And I was seated in the fourth row of the orchestra, directly in front of the Al Jolson "Swanee" ramp that juts out of the stage.)
The real standout in the cast was Jessica Phillips, who replaced the poorly received Brooke Shields as the town sheriff and Jonas' love interest. Phillips reminded me of Jessie Mueller, Tony nominee for another of this season's musical disasters, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which coincidentally was the previous tenant at the St. James Theatre before Leap of Faith. Like Mueller, Phillips is a remarkably appealing performer, warm and animated, with a kick-ass belt and a glisten in her eye. Jessie Mueller was recently cast as Cinderella in the upcoming Public Theatre production of Into the Woods. (Which rumor has it has its eye on Broadway.) I'm hoping that Phillips will likewise land on her feet after Leap closes tomorrow.
According to the New York Times, the producers of Leap of Faith decided to bring the show to Broadway this season, as opposed to waiting for the fall, because the St. James suddenly became available after the early closure of On a Clear Day. Rather than risk losing one of the most desirable Broadway houses, they decided to take the chance. It's tempting to speculate what might have happened if the producers had decided to wait and take the summer to get the show into more presentable shape. Would the changes have made any difference? Would a less-crowded season have given the show more of a chance to get noticed and build an audience? Or would the show simply have met the same unfortunate fate?