NEW YORK — Raul Esparza, the handsome and admirably complex star of the new screen-to-stage musical "Leap of Faith," is the guy you want in your show when your leading character is having a crisis of faith.
Although Jonas Nightingale, the traveling huckster-preacher who takes small-town prairie innocents for the little they've got until he gets caught in one of his own traps, may seem a million miles away from Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's "Company" (Esparza's most acclaimed Broadway role to date), the two fellows actually have plenty in common. Both fall easily into Esparza's specialty — playing hard-to-read, cynical characters who draw their energy from others, and who always check to see who's in a room before entering.
"Leap of Faith," which features a score by the prolific Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, is based on the 1992 movie starring Steve Martin and Meat Loaf (there's a small subset of casting combinations). Martin emphasized Jonas' flashy rhetorical theatrics when the collection plate came around. Esparza focuses more on his sense of self-loathing, which is the right way to go in the theater. There is a delicious cynicism to all Esparza does here, whether it's taking care of his partner in crime, his little sister (honestly played by Kendra Kassebaum) or wooing the wounded-but-beautiful town sheriff (Jessica Phillips) who, along with her crippled, faithful son (Talon Ackerman) will prove to be either his undoing or his salvation. Even when all is said and done, Jonas is not sure.
When "Leap of Faith" is focused on ambivalence, it feels good and true. Director Christopher Ashley has cast an ensemble of choir members and townsfolk that, thank god, look like real people under the kind of economic duress currently familiar to many Americans. Phillips could do to loosen up some; she doesn't seem interesting enough for Jonas. But many in the supporting cast, most notably the excellent "Smash" actor Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays the young preacher who blows the whistle on the Jonas scam, manage to flesh out their characters from the movie archetypes, avoiding the patronizing of faithful people and offering up both funny and moving performances.
A story that looks honestly at the fragility of our knowledge about life's great questions, and yet emphasizes how the miraculous can make that doubter doubt his doubts, is a fine topic for a musical with a decent, if not extraordinary, Menken score that embraces both Gospel stylings (animated zestily by choreographer Sergio Trujillo) and bleaker numbers more in the country tradition of personal malaise.
But this is Broadway, where backers worry about fun and popularity, and this show also has one foot in a campier reality, where roving cameras film the pre-show crowd, characters make jokes about New Yorkers, fake money is handed out to be collected later, and Jonas pokes fun at the cost of drinks in the theater: "Thank you for buying the $17 cocktails in the sippy cup. You've just been taken."
The excuse for all that nonsense is an outer narrative frame, wherein Jonas et al are telling their own story from multiple perspectives, replete with little interior monologues spoken directly to the audience. There is some fun to be had — a little — but this also scrambles the rules and bifurcates the show. There already are some tough-to-swallow aspects to the plot: the antagonist Sheriff declares her intent and power to close the swindling tent down right at the start, necessitating all kinds of leaps of faith to believe why it never quite happens until the end of Act 2. So when we take further bounds away from reality, the tent that's the centerpiece of Robin Wagner's set starts to shake. Metaphorically, anyway.
All that said, "Leap of Faith," which is believed to be on shaky fiscal footing on Broadway, is actually an interesting new American musical that, in its best moments, takes a look at a side of America that musicals usually fly right over. The title number (and several others) are quite complex Menken compositions — imagine the best of "Sister Act" suffused with a few notes and wails of the godless. And the show's main messenger delivers, with considerable flourish, the always-useful message that the more you think you know about life, the less the truth reveals itself.
"Leap of Faith" plays on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York; contact 212-239-6200 or leapoffaithbroadway.com