Tuesday September 21, 2010 / 8:00pmLeap of Faith
How was your experience?
I like to think I see most movies that come along...eventually, but somehow "Leap of Faith" starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger slipped by me. So when we got tickets to see the new Alan Menken musical currently playing at the Ahmanson Theater starring Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza, we decided to watch it first so we could compare. Actually, the two are pretty much the same, story-wise. A con-man preacher comes into a small town where his bus breaks down and they decide to pitch their revival tent to con the natives. The town is in the midst of a terrible drought and the people have to decide whether to pay to drill for water or give it to the preacher in hopes that God will bring rain instead. Sound familiar? The preacher is an amalgam of "Elmer Gantry" and Starbuck in "The Rainmaker" (which was eventually musicalized as "110 in the Shade), and Harold Hill in "The Music Man." The husband-less waitress and her brother/son* are not unlike Lizzie in "The Rainmaker" and Marion Paroo in "The Music Man," as well as countless other waitress-types such as Doatsy Mae in "The Best Little Whorehouse" and Alice from "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." The brother/son could easily be Winthrop from "The Music Man" (Meredith Willson originally wrote Winthrop to be crippled). Even the relationship between the Martin and Winger characters could be compared to Bonnie & Clyde. *(In the film Martin and Winger are co-workers, in the musical, brother and sister. In the film, the waitress and the crippled boy are brother and sister, in the musical they are mother and son. In the film, there is a black gospel-singing woman, in the musical she now has a son who wants to be a preacher. It all sounds pretty familiar, huh?) The musical (which is still in previews by the way) opens with the townspeople standing in front of a cornfield and a non-operational water well drill. Here on this hot, dry day, they decide there's nothing better to do than to dance a ballet. I have no idea what they were looking at or what they were doing...it was very bizarre choreography, especially to open the show. Brooke Shields is among this group at the beginning and I guess the audience didn't see her at first (even though she was standing in the front with a special light on her). Then she takes 4 steps downstage and the audience applauds! I could just hear the audience murmuring, "OH! There she is Frank! Isn't she beautiful?! I didn't recognize her standing amidst all those plain people dressed in similar drab clothing." Brooke Shields...she is very lovely and a fairly good actress. She actually has a fairly nice singing voice as well, BUT, she clearly has not learned how to sing. When you put people around people like her who can sing the sh*t out of songs, it really makes the problem that much more obvious. (I felt the same thing with Allison Janey in "9 to 5.") Okay, hire a star, but please make sure they are competent enough to stand on their own in the show. I was not that familiar with Raúl Esparza until I heard him sing some of the stuff from the recent Broadway revival of "Company," and while he had a really nice voice, I couldn't stand the pronounce vibrato that he had. I didn't notice the vibrato so much last night, but if he continues to scream the songs the way he does in this show, he won't last much past opening night, if that. The songs are written in keys that push him right to the very top of his range and he belts them not unlike Ted Neely in "Jesus Christ Superstar." He's a competent actor...nothing special. The problem with the role he plays, Jonas Nightingale, is that he's a despicable guy. He goes around the country conning people out of money they don't have, and really doesn't care. So the character needs to have some redeeming quality that makes us comfortable enough to watch him for a couple of hours (in the movie)...or three (in the musical). It's hard not to like Steve Martin. He doesn't even have to speak and he exudes warmth and charm and happiness. Mr. Esparza on the other hand came off as the epitome of smarmy. To top it off, he has jet-black hair and was almost always dressed in black, even when preaching. I don't know...isn't black more associated with Satan than God? In both versions he has a mirrored coat to mesmerize the audience, which reminded me of the Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha." Kendra Kassebaum, who I thought was terrific in "Wicked" as Galinda, was sorely awful in this. When she wasn't flipping around her long, blonde hair, everything she did and said was annoying. Her singing really grated on me, especially in the duet "People Like Us" with Brooke...two people like them, sounding bad together. Overall, I think I missed at least 35% of the dialogue and lyrics due in part to terrible sound design, but mostly due to very poor diction overall amongst the cast. There was a scene with the sheriff and his deputy (Jarrod Emick and Charlie Williams) that was happening simultaneously with the gospel choir singing and shimmying, and I couldn't understand a word they said. Literally. Not only were they speaking in hushed tones, the others on stage did not take their sound down to accommodate them. That's just poor direction and sound design. And the direction was poor...very poor indeed. Rob Ashford's (Broadway's "Promises, Promises," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and "Curtains") direction was barely visible and his choreography was just embarrassing. I always wonder if directors go out and sit in all parts of the house to make sure a show is good for everyone. Those townspeople dancers returned way too many times for more ballet with their long, drawn, we're out of water, faces. The score was written by Glenn Slater and Alan Menken. Slater is best known for his work on the stage version of Disney's "Little Mermaid" (bomb), and London's "Phantom of the Opera" sequel (bomb) and "Sister Act" (bomb in Pasadena, hit in London). Menken, who has annoyingly saturated himself in the movie animation world and now stage musical world, has brought us an annoyingly bland score. He's pretty good at the gospel stuff, but they all started sounding alike as the night wore on, and also very similar to his stuff in "Sister Act." Each song in turn was instantly forgettable, even though the lyrics at times were pretty good. The finale song "Leap of Faith" was the most memorable, but this morning, I can't remember how the tune goes (but I still remember the ONE good song from The Drowsy Chaperone, "Show Off" and that's been several years ago!). The other song I sort of liked was between the son and the preacher, "Walk into the Sunset." The boy, who we aren't supposed to know at the time can't walk, sings about walking into the sunset and enjoying life. Unfortunately, this song came to halt last night when Esparza screwed something up...perhaps a cut in the song. Telling the audience that it's a preview, they started the song over from the top. I'm not sure the average theater goer knows what previews really are and that they can stop, make changes, start over, etc. The rest of the score is gone from my head. I know there were lots of gospel numbers with all the stereotypical gospel gyrations and one about the young preacher's "Daddy's Shoes" (which made me think of "Very Soft Shoes" from "Once Upon a Mattress." I realize that producing musicals is very expensive and producers feel the need to use tried and true talent. But Menken continues to prove time and time again that he can only give us "serviceable" scores. I'd rather see a non-star in the show (and save that salary) and give an up-and-coming composer the chance to really give us something good. Before seeing the show, we had heard four other people's reviews and they were pretty much 0 for 4. I didn't think it was a total waste of time, but am always sad to see so much money poured into shows written by people with name value, based on movies with name value, that actually have little value to offer at all, while the average Joe who might have a terrific show, can't get it produced.