What Is It With CTG and Liquids?

This afternoon, we went down to the Ahmanson Theatre to see the new Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical “Leap of Faith”. Wow. I now believe in the power of Raul Esparza and Brooke Shields.

Leap of Faith” is a new musical, with book by Janus Cercone and Glenn Slater, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is based on the 1992 film “Leap of Faith starring Steve Martin, although some characters have been changed from the movie. The story, as presented on stage, is about Jonas Nightingale, a fraudulent faith healer, who breaks down with his team of gospel angels in Sweetwater KS. While waiting for parts for their bus, they decide to do some revival shows to fleece the townspeople, who are already in dire straights because of the lack of rain. Jonas falls for the town waitress, Marva McGowan, who sees right through his act and presents a challenge like he’s never seen before. Jonas’ sister, Sam, bets Jonas about making money in the town, as well as betting him that he won’t be able to get this girl. Adding to the mess is the town sheriff, who is a realist that wants to stop Jonas before he fleeces the town, and instead wants to drill a well to solve the water problems. Another subplot involves Ida Mae Sturdevant, one of the gospel angels, and her son, Ricky, who believes in doing the Lord’s work in a more honest fashion. There are some additional subplots that I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil the story.

Before I go into the acting and singing (which was superb), let’s look at the story and music itself. The story in some ways is reminiscent of “110° in the Shade”: both concern a con man seducing a local girl in a town that desparately needs rain, and a Sheriff that forms part of the triangle. But whereas the focus of 110 was Lizzie and her decision about the man, the focus of LoF is Jonas and whether he will do the right thing. In the end, I believe this creates a more uplifting story; you certainly walk out of the theatre feeling good about this bad man. Music-wise, the tone is very reminiscent of the previous Menken-Slater combination “Sister Act” (which we saw at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006): both have strong gospel tinged numbers. I think I like the “Sister Act” music slightly better; it will be interesting to see if any of the music morphs as the musical moves its way to Broadway. Some of the folks I saw the show with thought it ran a little long; I didn’t notice the length as a problem.

Turning to the acting and directing: this is one of the best acted musicals I have seen in ages! Credit for this goes to the director, Rob Ashford, and for the marvelous cast, led by Raul Esparza and Brooke Shields. These two cannot be singled out enough, for they brought the characters to life: Esparza as the conniving con man Jonas Nightingale, and especially Brooke Shields as Marva McGowen. I knew Esparza was good, but Shields blew me away. When she was younger, I thought she was very wooden as an actress, but my has she grown in skill and talent. She just brought Marva to life, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her performance. She has worked hard on this performance, and it shows. Oh, and both can sing wonderfully as well. It is worth going to the performance just to see these two.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast is any slouch. Certainly not, when the cast contains such local favorites as Michelle Duffy (Emma Schlarp, an Angel of Mercy, and U/S for both Sam and Marva), Darcie Roberts (Rita), and Kendra Kasselbaum (Sam Nightingale). We’ve seen Michelle before in both Mask and Can-Can at the Pasadena Playhouse (among other shows), Darcie in The Andrews Brothers, and Kendra in Wicked. Other notables in the cast included Kecia Lewis-Evans (Ida Mae Sturdevant), Nicholas Barasch (Boyd McGowan), Jarrod Emick (Sheriff Will Braverman), and Leslie Odom Jr (Ricky Sturdevant). All strong singers and actors, and a delight to watch. Rounding out the cast were the following: Bryce Ryness (Dude), Brandon Wardell (Amos), Krystal Joy Brown (Ornella), C. E. Smith (Titus), Dennis Stowe (Caesar), Harvey Evans (Mugs), Michael X. Martin (Jake), Brad Anderson (Tom), Bob Gaynor (Fred), Shannon Lewis (Susie Raylove), Alex Michael Stoll (Robert Raylove), Charlie Williams (Deputy Wayne Storm), Tom Berklund (Ensemble), Bradley Benjamin (Ensemble), Christopher Bones (Ensemble), Ta’rea Campbell (Ensemble), Eric L. Christian (Ensemble), Ashley Blair Fitzgerald (Ensemble), Jennie Ford (Dance Captain/Swing), Angela Grovey (Ensemble), Maurice Murphy (Ensemble), Anise E. Ritchie (Ensemble), Ariel Shepley (Ensemble), Katherine Tokarz (Ensemble), and Natalie Willes (Ensemble).

The production was choreographed by Rob Ashford, and had dance arrangements by David Chase. Chris Bailey served as associate choreographer with Stephen Sposito as associate director. In general, the movement was good, although I found the ballet-style numbers inbetween scenes to be perhaps a bit overdone and unnecessary. Music supervision was by Michael Kosarin, with orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Joseph Joubert. The orchestra was conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman, and consisted of 9 pieces.

In general, the technical aspects of the program were excellent. I was astounded by Robin Wagner’s scenic design, the costume designs of William Ivey Long, the lighting designs of Donald Holder, and the wig and hair designs by Paul Huntley. I want to single out Holder for the clever use of moving lights and the creation of mood via the cyclorama. Also notable were the rain effects by Showman Fabricators, which topped the previous rain in Cabrillo’s Singing in the Rain. As the title of this post indicates: what is it with CTG and liquids: first 37 gallons of blood nightly in The Lt. of Inishmore, and now a full rainstorm in Leap of Faith! The only technical problems were in John Shivers sound design: the first act had very muddied and weak sound, and the second act had the sound changing the tone of singer’s voices. Hopefully, these problems will be worked out. Steven Zweigbaum was Production Stage Manager, and Susie Walsh and Michelle Blair served as stage managers.

Leap of Faith continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until October 24, 2010. Tickets are available through CTG.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Theatre for the month of October begins with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East. We are also seeing Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale October 19, potential date November 21); and Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 27). December will bring Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). It may also bring the FDR with Ed Asner at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Leslie Uggams one-woman show “Uptown, Downtown” at the Pasadena Playhouse: According to the box office, we may get tickets… or I may purchase tickets at the subscriber rate. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.