The new Broadway musical "Leap of Faith," which opened Thursday night, is really "The Music Man" in a revival tent. A con-artist comes to a backwater town and in this case, he's not a phony musician, he's a phony preacher. And he doesn't get the whole town involved in a marching band, he turns them into a band of believers who march to his collection plate.
And there you have it — a formulaic musical right down to the easy-to-see love affair that will develop between the preacher man and the no-nonsense woman who's the town sheriff and his nemesis, the boilerplate subplot that involves trouble and the unrealistic ooey-gooey ending.
People who see maybe two or three new Broadway shows a year — which is to say normal people, not necessarily critics who get to see everything — will like "Leap of Faith" for its playful energy, and because the formula will not be so well-worn for them. They'll admire its tunes by master songwriter Alan Menken (you always leave the theater humming his music), and its attractive and talented cast led by the superb Raúl Esparza as the preacher, Jonas Nightingale.
Esparza, with a tightly-packed medium frame, deep-set eyes and an easy onstage presence, is one of Broadway's most versatile presences — as much at home in Harold Pinter's demanding "The Homecoming"as he is here, singing his heart out, dancing Sergio Trujillo's spunky praise-the-lord choreography, and dressed in William Ivey Long's sharkskin and leather. His leading lady is lanky Jessica Phillips, who was in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and whose long red hair and well-chiseled face add oomph to her spot-on singing and characterization as the sheriff and the town's chief cook and bottle washer.
Lots of cast members make the very best of their moments in the sun, numbers by Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater, the same team that scored another current Broadway musical with high-energy religion at its core, "Sister Act." Their revival-hall songs seem one-dimensionally generic in the first act but take off grandly in the second, and always neatly further the plot — in "Leap of Faith," nothing is strikingly inventive but everything is polished. (This is Menken's second Broadway opening within weeks, the other being "Newsies.")
Most of the cast plays members of the revival choir or townsfolk, and the audience gets into the action by contributing fake dollars, passed out beforehand, to collection baskets during the show's three nights of revivals. Kendra Kassebaum plays the preacher's sister who manages the revival and cooks the books, and Broadway veteran Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom Jr. (from TV's "Smash") and Krystal Joy Brown all sing and dance to perfection as members of a family involved with the revival.
The endearing teenage actor Talon Ackerman plays a pivotal role as a boy in a wheelchair who comes to the revival hoping to walk again after a car crash had injured him. The blond, mopheaded Ackerman was one of the best things about the short-lived "Bonnie and Clyde" musical this season, in the role of the very young Clyde, and he exudes the same sort of character-built charm in "Leap of Faith."
His is also the role that muddies the logic of "Leap of Faith," taken from a 1992 movie starring Steve Martin and written by Janus Cercone, a record executive and playwright. Cercone collaborated on the book for the musical with Warren Light ("Side Man"), and the story trips over itself with that boy.
In the show's first half, the preacher's staff warns him strongly not to use the boy for "healing" at the revival because the kid's a high risk for failure. Then, without any reason (except to make the plot work), in the second half the preacher's staff demands that he use the boy — never giving him or the audience a faint hint of a reason for the turnaround. After all, the kid's still as high a risk as ever. "Leap of Faith" is about a phony who employs the cheap trick. If the show offers any real revelation, it's that the playwriting does, too.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.