PANNED BY THE CRITICS AND REJECTED BY AUDIENCES THE MUSICAL ABOUT A CHARLATAN FAITH HEALER LOST MORE THAN $14 MILLION MAKING IT THE SEASON'S BIGGEST FLOP
BY HENRY EDWARDS
“Leap of Faith,” the musical adaptation of an unsuccessful 1992 movie starring Steve Martin, is calling it quits after 24 previews and 20 performances at the St. James Theatre.
The show, which brought to a close Broadway’s 2011-2012 theater season, racked up losses exceeding $14 million, making it the season's biggest flop.
Hurrying along its demise, in his review in The New York Times, Ben Brantley declared the entertainment “this season’s black hole of musical comedy, sucking the energy out of anyone who gets near it.”
Ironically, "Leap" received a single Tony Award nomination, for of all things, best musical. It competes against "Newsies," "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Once."
The show took twelve years to arrive on Broadway.
The 1992 movie was written by Janus Cercone and co-produced by Cercone’s husband, Michael Manheim.
In 2000, the couple set out to transform their film into a stage musical, and longtime friend Alan Menken, with whom they shared an affection for gospel music, signed on as composer. Menken is best known for his scores for a series of monster Disney film hits ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Pocahontas.")
After an unsuccessful outing with one lyricist, the composer invited behind-the-scenes shenanigans ultilized by bogus faith healers proved an additional source of interest for those few who chose to see the movie.
Richard Pearce's film dealt with Jonas, a fraudulent Christian faith healer who planned to use his revival meetings and ability to create phony "miracles" to bilk a drought stricken Kansas town out of its money. However, in a surprising dramatic reversal, events make Jonas examine his own faith and doubts.
Jonas was disreputable, desperate, sharp witted, greedy and disheartened. And yet when push came to shove, he was capable of leaping about onstage, dressed in glittering suits, prancing, posturing, and utilizing tried and true show business techniques, including a backup gospel choir, to awaken his benumbed audience and to urge them to give him their money.
The faux evangelist also relied on computerized databases, informers and overheard conversations to gather "miraculous" insights into members of his congregations. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans utilized by bogus faith healers proved an additional source of interest for those few who chose to see the movie.
Filming in a series of Texas towns gave the film a dose of visual authenticity.
It also seemed the correct political moment for the movie. In a major policy decision taken very early into his presidency, George W Bush Jr, an avowed born-again Christian, unveiled a "faith based" social service initiative that included a new White House office to promote government aid to churches and Christian faith-based organizations. That decision threw the massive weight of the federal government behind religious groups and religious conversions, and a new mood of aggressive evangelism began to emanate throughout America and from America to the rest of the world.
And yet no one really wanted to see the film.
If the movie was basically an exploration of a man's philosophical and spiritual awakening, the creators decided to transform the material to a love story. This decision would rob the material of its most creative and original elements and serve to conventionalize it.
The musical version of "Leap" wound up having three directors: film director Taylor Hackford ("Ray," "An Officer and a Gentleman"), Rob Ashford and Christopher Ashley.
Hackford departed after published reports suggested he lacked the expertise to handle a stage production. Choeographer Rob Ashford took over, brought on Brooke Shields to co-star with Raúl Esparza, and guided the production to a run at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre where it received mixed but somewhat encouraging reviews.
Playwright Warren Leight (a Tony winner for “Side Man” and showrunner on “Law & Order: SVU”) then came on board to clarify the plot and tone of the show and to make it ready for Broadway's prime time.
For the newest version, the producers called upon Ashley to direct and Sergio Trujillo to choreograph.
Their efforts produced a show in which, although the individual elements conspired to give the illusion of a big Broadway musical, a lack of inspiration and originality dominated the results. Simply put, the book was too sentimental, the material seemed tired and out-of-date, the Menken-Slater country/pop/gospel score, despite a few terrific songs, lacked personality and the choreography was especially hackneyed.
“Leap” starred Raúl Esparza, one of Broadway’s most exciting leading men, and he sang beautifully and acted up a storm. And yet his character was so conventionalized, the star wound up not being a star but a hired hand lugging the entire venture around on his shoulders with little help of any value from the creative team.
Jessica Phillips as town sheriff Marla Humes, who is determined to stop Jonas from separating the townspeople from their money, performed with enormous strength and charm. Kecia Lewis-Evans, Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom, Jr. gave their all in underwritten supporting roles.
"Leap," energetic and second-rate, had no problem pleasing non-discriminating audience members who seemed to be having a terrific time. But the non-discriminating refused to turn up in sufficient numbers to overcome the negative critical reaction and to keep the show running.