Welcome to the show business of religion. A place where the impoverished and desperate are encouraged to hand over everything. Faith is the key. If what you pray for doesn’t come true….. it’s simple. You don’t have enough faith.
Leap of Faith premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, 2010 – the brainchild of Alan Menken (Music), Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Janus Cercone (book.) Workshopped by Taylor Hackford, then directed and choreographed by the legendary Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Curtains, Promises, Promises) it didn’t survive a long run. Not even a change of scenery to the Broadway stage of the St James Theatre in April of 2012, nor a new director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu), script revisions by Warren Leight and the contribution of talented Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, The Adams Family) could save it. The show closed after 24 previews and 20 shows.
This musical is a tough sell. Don’t get me wrong. It has an incredibly fun, vibrant, toe-tapping score that splashes through Gospel, Broadway and Motown with a peppering of Country-pop. It is also a Tony nominated show. However, the tale of Jonas Nightingale and his band of ministerial misfits never really hooked the heart strings of the general public. Although the Rockdale Company was enthusiastic, motivated and well rehearsed, this show came out a little underdone.
Daniel O’Connell enters charismatically as Jonas Nightingale. A few opening night pitch issues didn’t dampen his energy, passion and drive as he arrives with his troupe, on a broken down bus and schemes to clean out the already dirt-poor, drought-stricken citizens of the township of Sweetwater, with his own special brand of shyster evangelism. Enter the sheriff of the town, Marla McGowan (beautifully engaged by Jessica James-Moody) and the plot thickens. Marla seeks to protect her town from what she sees as ‘A fox in the hen house.’ Her agenda has a duality. Marla doesn’t believe in false hope or a God that would allow her husband to be killed in a car crash and her son left wheelchair-bound as a result of the accident. She’s a realist. Prayer won’t bring back her husband or make her son walk again.
Other secondary characters in Nightingales camp also have their own agendas. His ever supportive and equally scheming sister, Sam ( brilliantly layered by Tanya Boyle– that girl can sing!) seeks to keep the ministries mission afloat. Get in, get the money and get on the bus! Leading the Angels of Mercy Choir is the very talented and sassy songbird, Ida Mae Sturdevant (April-Marie Neho ) and her daughter Ornella ( Sally Redman) both happily trying to keep the scam afloat. While Ida’s son, Isaiah ( Louis Vinciguerra) recently returned from bible college, seeks to undermine the whole operation.
And so….the game begins!
Craig Nhobbs choreographs the high energy numbers with gusto. There was a fusion of contemporary, hip hop and jazz influences reflecting both the modern uptake and youthful liveliness of this show. While it is clear that the Rockdale ensemble have very strong dancers, there is a lot to be said for putting ‘everything’ in a number. Large groups on stage needed fine tuning and there were blocking issues. There was so much talent to watch but often the visual was muddied by lack of space.
Ella Zattera has worked well with a very talented cast and crew of creatives. Musical direction (Josh Ransom) was fantastic, the set was simple but effective ( thanks to Elle Zattera, Fran Appleyard and Stephen Prochowski). Lighting (Rods sound & Lighting) was bold, reflecting the fast paced world of Nightingale and contrasted beautifully with the quiet sleepiness of Sweetwater but a tightening of cues from sound and lighting was needed in order for scenes to resonate with greater impact and not obstruct the flow of the show. I’m also not a fan of lights in the audience eyes, even as a device to build tension or express joy. I wanted to see what was happening.
All in all Leap of Faith is a solid, fun show with a lot of heart. If you want to tap your toes and forget about life for a while, grab your wallet and support the industry that fosters imagination, passion and creativity!
Lee Anderson – Theatre Now