By Mary O’KEEFE
“So we come to God from different directions,” said Ida Mae Sturdevant to her strictly devout son in the production of “Leap of Faith” playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Ida, played by actress Kecia Lewis-Evans, is the leader of the revival choir Angels of Mercy. Her son Ricky, played by Leslie Odom Jr., is a student at Bible college. He visits his mother while she is on tour with a tent revival led by charismatic Jonas Nightingale, portrayed by Raul Esparza.
The musical is an adaptation of the 1992 film starring Steve Martin. It is based in Sweetwater, Kans. where people are desperate for rain and something to believe in. Nightingale’s bus breaks down at the edge of town. Not one to let an opportunity pass, his well-rehearsed group sets up a tent and he begins to preach to these faith longing people. He is charming and inspiring and brings energy to this very tired town – something he has done hundreds of times in hundreds of towns. His crew is led by his sister Sam, portrayed by Kendra Kassebaum. They use modern technology and con artist tricks to make these people feel that God spoke to Nightingale and guided him to the dried fields of Kansas. The town folks show their devotion to God via Nightingale as the offering baskets are sent around and the desperate plunk down their last dime. This is a normal scam, a normal town until Nightingale walks into a diner where Marva, portrayed by Brooke Shields, works. There he becomes at first smitten, then falls for the pretty single mom and waitress. She sees through his charm, he sees through her pain. Her son sees Nightingale as spiritual sign.
I approached this play from a Midwesterner’s perspective – my uncle and many family members were what we called back home “holy rollers.” They were called this, my grandfather told me, because at these tent revivals the spirit of the Lord would be so powerful that people would fall to the ground and roll to the altar. In “Leap of Faith,” Esparza is the nucleus of the production and his choir is the answer to every God-fearing evangelical preacher’s prayer. All I can say is that Esparza gets it.
He doesn’t play Nightingale as a man who is out to con as much as a man who is out to give the people what they want and what they need. He is so inspirational that he draws the audience into the revival and has them clapping and saying, “Amen.” This is talent. And although it may take a village – even in theatre – to put on a production, this is Esparza’s show.
The music was written by Academy Award winner Alan Menken, who also wrote the music for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” There are times you can hear Disney channeling through, but the music moves the play forward which may sound like a logical thing but
is not always the case in musicals.
There are some strong voices with Kassebaum, Odom, Lewis-Evans and Krystal Joy Brown as Ornella, the choir member of easy virtue. When these voices along with Esparza belt out “Are You On The Bus?” it is one of those breathtaking moments that can only happen in theatre.
The first act is strong but it is the second that brings the spirit of the play to life. The spice, as with all holy rollers, is in the revival tent. Esparza spreads his version of Scripture with the energy of a Vegas performer with an Elmer Gantry flare.
Again, maybe it is because I am from the Bible belt that makes me want to see past the music to find the soul of the play, to question what is faith and who has the right to spread the word. Is it better to learn sin from a sinner, does God perform miracles or are they random acts? And what makes us cross the line from doubt to belief?
Though the play may not answer all of these questions, maybe it’s enough that it prompts the asking.
“Leap of Faith” is at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. The play runs through Oct. 24. Performances: Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday 6:30 p.m. For information and tickets call (213) 972-4400 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org.