You would have leaped for joy after seeing “Leap of Faith,” a marvelous, original musical that recently played at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street. The musical had engaging music by Alan Menken, a charming book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight and delightful lyrics by Glenn Slater.
From the time you entered the St. James Theatre, you had the sense of being in a church environment, as organs played in the background.
When the musical opened, Jonas Nightingale and his choir were stranded near Sweetwater, Fla., a poor town where people’s crops were failing due to lack of rain and there was a feeling of desperation. Jonas told his choir this was the place they should remain. Now, Jonas called himself a preacher, but he was really a con man–he preached the word and fleeced the pockets of the local townspeople as he held his revivals.
The audience got to discover the behind-the-scenes machinations of these swindlers when they come to a new town. We saw the extensive research that goes into finding out the names of the townspeople and the personal problems they are dealing with, then we saw how Jonas was fed information on each person as he encountered them at the revival meetings and led them to believe he was a legitimate preacher and healer. The audience was shown how the dishonest, thieving, revival meeting game was played.
There were lots of laughs and some showstopping songs, including “Walking Like Daddy,” “I Can Read You,” “King of Sin,” “Long Past Dreamin’” and “If Your Faith is Strong Enough.”
Raul Esparza illuminated the stage with his extraordinary performance as Jonas. His voice was amazing and he took the audience through the emotional ride that this character experienced–a ride that left him permanently changed.
Jessica Phillips played Marla, the town sheriff who saw right through Jonas from the beginning but was also charmed by him. Esparza and Phillips had a marvelous chemistry.
Kendra Kassebaum had a wonderful voice and brought layers to her role as Sam, Jonas’ baby sister who had been running this scam with him for 10 years as a means for their survival. The audience first saw Sam as the cold, cruel assistant to the fake preacher but later saw her vulnerable side, which acknowledged that she had survived off the suffering of others.
Talon Ackerman was precious as Jake, the sheriff’s crippled son, who had an unwavering faith in Jonas and felt Jonas could make him walk.
African-American Kecia Lewis-Evans had a tremendous voice that rocked the theater; she was featured in the choir and played Jonas’ bookkeeper, Ida Mae. Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. played her children, Ornella and Isaiah, and they thrilled the audience with their phenomenal singing voices. What was great about this show was that it chose to employ several African-Americans in the cast as the choir members, and, of course, the choir sang beautifully.
This was a musical you would have definitely been uplifted by and it would have had you walking out rejoicing. It also had exciting choreography by Sergio Trujillo and outstanding direction by Christopher Ashley.
Sadly the show closed Sunday, May 13.