Esparza Gives Sinister Edge To ‘Leap of Faith’: Review

Raul Esparza in ``Leap of Faith'' in New York. The play is directed by Christopher Ashley. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Broadway loves a con man, especially one who sees the light.

The flim-flam fraternity that includes Professor Harold Hill, Nathan Detroit and Bill Starbuck has a new pledge in the person of the Rev. Jonas Nightingale, the holy-rolling fleece artist currently headlining a tent meeting at the St. James Theatre under the banner “Leap of Faith.”

Played with dangerous, dark magnetism by Raul Esparza, Jonas has been banned in several states when he and his company of gospel-singing grifters tumble into the dusty town of Sweetwater, Kansas.

The choir hasn’t been paid in weeks and the bus needs a new transmission.

Sweetwater seems ripe for the picking, though the pickings will surely be slim.

The townspeople are out of work, it hasn’t rained in months and everyone has given up hope except the crippled son of the widowed lady sheriff, Marla McGowan.

“Leap of Faith,” based on the 1992 movie that starred Steve Martin and Debra Winger, has been riding that broken-down bus to Broadway for nearly a decade.

It still needs a new transmission.

The songs are by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, the team that also faked gospel music with “Sister Act.”

Sinister Minister

Here we go again with oversize black singers belting their numbers to the rafters. (It’s particularly unfortunate that this character in “Leap” is named Ida Mae, while that character in “Ghost” is called Oda Mae).

Ida, Oda, let’s call the whole thing off.

Esparza works hard and the sinister edge he brings to Jonas helps cut through the blandness.

He’s ably supported by Jessica Phillips as his love interest, Kendra Kassebaum as his sister and chief accomplice, Leslie Odom Jr. as Jonas’s gently fierce nemesis and Talon Ackerman, a young charmer who plays McGowan’s determined son.

Christopher Ashley’s staging is serviceable, as are Sergio Trujillo’s dances. But there’s not a moment’s surprise in the show. Certainly not in the ending, which didn’t make a believer of me and won’t, I reckon, make one of you.

At the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: **

‘Don’t Dress’

The Broadway season officially closes with “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” which would win the Tony Award for Worst Title, if such a prize were in the offing.

This mild farce by Marc Camoletti (“Boeing Boeing”) is set in the countryside near Paris, where the philandering Bernard (Adam James) is expecting his girlfriend for a weekend tryst, while his wife Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember) visits her mother.

Jacqueline’s plans fall through, setting in motion comic machinery that should have our heads spinning with the arrival of Bernard’s best friend and Jacqueline’s lover, Robert (Ben Daniels); Bernard’s bouncy paramour Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly); and Suzette (Spencer Kayden), a cook hired for the festivities, but compelled to pretend she is at least a half-dozen other characters before the weekend has run its course.


John Lee Beatty’s imposing set, with the requisite surfeit of doors, is also a key character. The women are especially enjoyable: Tilly as the va-va-voom girlfriend, Kalember as the stolidly hypocritical yet touching wife, and especially Kayden, who morphs from plain Jane to slinky lynx before our delighted eyes (with a lip-smacking assist from costumier William Ivey Long).

Director John Tillinger manages the traffic smoothly. The whole thing would seem harmlessly diverting were it not for the last-minute appearance of Suzette’s hulking husband (David Aron Damane), an appalling stereotype that very nearly drained the evening of its modest pleasures.

Through June 17 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include film reviews and Lewis Lapham.

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