Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leap of Faith: A New Ministry on 44th Street

Elmer Gantry's greatnephew Jonas Nightingale has opened his tent on 44th street at the St. James Theatre to swindle chumps, I mean save souls. I went to the last preview courtesy of a very talented friend, whose company produced an important element of the production (which I can't specify because it's a spoiler).

There are many ghosts swirling around Broadway's new musical, Leap of Faith, and much infectious high school spirit, but for a story that is about religion/spirituality, there's not much of a presence of the real thing. It's Old Time religion for those who would rather not.

Leap of Faith was an original screenplay by Janus Cercone for the 1992 film starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger. The story is fairly simple: a crooked faith healer with a kick ass Gospel choir roams the midwest to bilk people out of cash in carefully orchestrated 3-day scams. It's an interesting choice of property to bring to the Great White Way.

"Can I Have an Hallelujah"
The culture of Evangelical revival tent meetings has little presence today outside of their television grandsons. One touchstone film buffs have for the crooked variety is Burt Lancaster's riveting Academy Award winning performance as Elmer Gantry, who manipulates the true believer Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) to tragic ends. (Not sure why these preachers gravitate to bird surnames.)

Sinclair Lewis's novel Elmer Gantry was published in 1927, the same year the theater Jonas is in was built by Abe Erlanger as The Erlanger. When he died in 1930 the Astors, who owned the land, took control and, great Anglo-American Episcopalian snobs that they were, renamed it the St. James Theatre, after London's St. James's Theatre (but wisely giving up what actually is the correct punctuation of a proper name ending in "s": an apostrophe with another "s.") And thus was the ground for Jonas's Broadway tent sanctified by the name of two of the 12 Apostles.

Another by-chance spiritual benediction for Jonas is Broadway history: the main set of Leap has a row of realistic cornstalks against the changing sky in the very theater that Oklahoma! debuted and played all 2,212 performances. Jonas is in Kansas, not OK, but surely the set designer is tributing the granddaddy of American musicals.

Sing It, Sisters
The centerpiece of the musical is the Angels of Mercy Gospel choir. The singing is uniformly excellent. What a thrill. It starts with Kecia Lewis-Evans as the Gospel song leader with the enormous range---the real, solid, alto notes up to the dizzy heights of the commanding soprano---opening up the first number, "Rise Up." Her two children, Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom, Jr. (yes, of Smash) have effortlessly beautiful voices filled with rich musicality.

The music is by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and it's good in what is for me a generically, pleasing Broadway way. There are no songs you will com out humming ("Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. . ."), no song that matches "Popular" or "Defying Gravity," but nothing clunky. The songs move along the themes of how good people can talk themselves into doing bad things, and so book and songs are tight.

But. This Gospel choir should be singing some actual Gospel hymns. Where is "I Saw the Light," "Blessed Assurance" or "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (both in the movie), "How Great Thou Art." Having the choir occasionally be, well, a choir, would have added a much-needed depth to the story. I didn't even hear a sample of a hymn in any of the songs, not even a nod to other faux Broadway hymns like Loesser's "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat."

(And, as if to underscore the point, on the subway home,  I realized the "doors are closing" tones are the opening notes to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!)

Devil in the Red Coat?
This is a star-reaffriming vehicle for Raul Esparza, as though he needed one: he easily pumps up his natural charm to the snake oil variety for Jonas. His singing is thrilling throughout, but really powerful at the end when his devil side is being challenged by simple human decency and the power of faith in people and in Christ.

Everyone's favorite Glinda, Kendra Kassebaum, matches Esparza's acting and singing chops as his sister, and Jessica Phillips as the Sheriff is strong though given some less-than-believeable action points.

So, What Are We Worshipping?
The musical frames the action in a cute way: when it opens, it's as though the audience is in the tent, which is the main set, imaginatively constructed to sometimes blend into the proscenium curtains. The action is the present moment on 44th street, with Jonas calling everyone a sinner and testifying his tale.

Then the action goes back several years to Sweetwater, Kansas, and the corn stalks.

Besides the tent, there is one other piece of the set that dominates the beginning and end: an Arco gas sign at the gas station where the revival bus has broken down, bringing them to the town. It's enormous, it towers over the actors and the corn, like a real-life one is tall enough to be seen from a distance. It is cross-like in shape itself, and lists today's obscene prices of gasoline.

Contrast that with the small neon cross that hangs on the tent. Hmm.

It's true that tent ministries had very simple altars and the sign of the cross was modest. And the character Isaiah, who is visiting from Bible college, tries to confront the Angels that if the are scamming people, they are no longer followers of Jesus. Which is an important point: Sinclair Lewis was writing about a con man. For the early decades of the 20th century the likes of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson brought true Christian community to isolated towns across the midwest.

But, in today's world, is it a subliminal accident that the symbol of much of modern life's power struggles--oil---hovers over this story of taking a leap of faith? One could argue that the love/need of oil is the root of much evil: Middle East conflicts; corporate greed/price gouging; environmental disasters from the Exxon Valdez to BP in the Gulf.

Everyone in the tent will have his or her own revelation in the St. James Theatre, and you can't ask for more than that from art. As they say, God works in mysterious ways.