The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, April 26, 2012

FCS: Leap of Faith


Quick facts:
  • Show: Leap of Faith
  • Broadway
  • Date: Friday, April 20, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: St. James Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Great! Mid-mezzanine, center
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: The stage version of the 1992 film of the same name.  A crooked faith healer's bus breaks down in a small depressed town in middle America.  He and the cast of his roving church decide to take them for all they're worth.

My thoughts: Leap of Faith probably won't be described by most critics as "great theater" or anything like that - and I guess it's really not.  But there is something about it.  It hits all the points it needs to hit, and it's truly effective.

The experience begins as soon as you walk into the theater.  I'm the dork who likes to get there the minute the house opens.  Some of my more sophisticated friends tease me about that, but I tend to be somewhat spatially oriented, so I like to get there with time to experience the space - to learn about my surroundings and to begin to immerse myself in the feelings that are being set up for me.  The house at Leap of Faith really got the stage set for me.  The curtain was a kind of circus tent design.  About 20 minutes before curtain, a Hammond organ began to play.  And just a few minutes before, members of the cast began wandering through the house getting the crowd riled up.  In reality, it was a bit silly, but it did help to establish the mood - and it established early on that we (the audience) had an investment in the show.  As such, the stage adaptation worked well.  They didn't simply try to perform what had been on film - they brought us into the world that had once been inhabited only by the film.

One of the defining characteristics of the show that kept emerging for me was its simplicity.  It's not that it wasn't completely high-end in production value, it's just that I never felt like the show was trying to beat itself over my head.  The set (designed by Robin Wagner), though moving and dynamic, was fairly simple.  At the beginning of the show - it was fascinating to watch the revival tent being pitched in front of us onstage.  The choreography by Sergio Trujillo cleverly conveyed the evangelical, revival community.  The lighting (designed by Don Holder) was effective at telling the story, passing the time, and subtly conveying moods, but always remained natural and organic.  The shining moment (if you'll pardon the mostly unintentional pun) in the lighting happened during "Jonas' Soliloquy" - the main character came downstage center before a black background illuminated only by a simple spotlight.  As the music swelled and the emotion ran deeper, slowly more spotlights began to emerge, until he was bathed in at least a dozen of them - coming from as many angles.  It was a simple, but thoroughly powerful effect.

The cast was truly outstanding - led by none other than the star himself, Raúl Esparza.  I have, of course, heard of Esparza, but this was my first time to see him live.  He embodies everything that there is to embody in a Broadway star.  He is sexy, a brilliant singer, and a thrilling actor.  He drips with a charisma that beckons every eye to wherever he would have it go.  I'm pretty sure everyone in that large theater thought that he was there just for them - I know I did!

Though, as brilliant as Esparza is, he was not at all alone in the spotlight.  Talon Ackerman in the role of Jake McGowan was very effective.  I'm always amazed at talented child-actors.  I suppose I've seen (and been a part of) too many amateur productions, and suffered through the performances of too many untrained children - but I'm always amazed when a child in a stage production can really sell his or her role to me.  McGowan did!

Kecia Lewis-Evans often stole the show in the role of Ida Mae Sturdevant.  That kind of gospel style singing isn't easy to act (which is perhaps why we're often so bad at our attempts of it in the Episcopal Church - it just isn't our nature!) - it has to come from a place deeper in the soul than most people can call up.  But Lewis-Evans did it as naturally and skillfully as anyone I've ever heard.

As a credit to smart casting, her character's two children were also runaway stars of the production.  Krystal Joy Brown in the role of Ida Mae's daughter, Ornella Sturdevant, seemed a chip off the old block.  Whenever she took control of the stage - well, it was almost enough to bring me to Jesus.

The most delightful performance, however, was from Leslie Odom, Jr. in the role of Ida Mae's Bible-college-studying son, Isaiah Sturdevant.  His singing was delicate and precise.  I may buy the cast recording just for the joy of hearing him again and again.  The rest of his presence on stage matched his voice - he was strong, but always reserved.  Always giving just enough.  It felt like he might simply explode across the stage - and in a sense, I suppose he did.

Though I'm admittedly amateur - as I've stated from the start - my walk away review will sound all the more so than probably anything I've written before.  This show simply made me feel good.  I laughed, I cried, I clapped in rhythm with up-tempo songs, and I happily stood as soon as the curtain call began.  I even walked away humming the songs.

I know it sounds kind of silly to say these things, but this is as least part of what theater is meant to do.  I've talked about the theater's transcendent potential.  Leap of Faith met that potential and pulled me into another world.  It took me along for the ride.  So while it's probably not going to go down in history as one of the greatest events of theatrical history, it was an unmitigated success.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Yeah, probably.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Definitely.  I have at least one friend who I expect to see it, and I expect that he'll have as good of a time as I did.  I'd love for my mother to see it when she comes to visit.  I even think it might be one of the rare shows that my father would enjoy!
  • Twitter review: Success!  A great night out that will leave you feeling as good as you always hope the theater will!

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