LEAP OF FAITH (Ahmanson) and THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG (Reprise/Freud Playhouse) – Los Angeles Musical Theater Review

by Harvey Perr on October 6, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

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PERFORMANCE POWER

Question: Why revive They’re Playing Our Song?
Answer: Stephanie J. Block.

Question: Why create a musical like Leap of Faith?
Answer: Raul Esparza.

Suggestion: Why not write a good musical for Stephanie J. Block and Raul Esparza?
Reason: They would send a good song soaring into the stratosphere.

Question: How can you be sure of that?
Answer: They have both proven that they can sing a bad song and still compel an audience to tremble with excitement. They both have what is known as star power. They not only have great voices but they have the kind of drive and energy and sheer chutzpah that separates extraordinary performers from merely talented ones. One comes across such artists on only the rarest of occasions.

Question: So should one go out of one’s way to see either They’re Playing Our Song or Leap of Faith?
Answer: Yes, if you’re at all curious about what I’m talking about. No, if you care about 1) art or 2) the price of theater tickets.

Question: What’s wrong with They’re Playing Our Song?
Answer: We spend nearly three hours with two characters and a book by Neil Simon that is driven more by jokes than by character; worse, the characters are a composer and a lyricist who, once the preliminary sarcasm is put aside, keep telling each other how talented they are as they go on singing songs that, with the exception of the title song, sound very much alike. The fact that its real composer, Marvin Hamlisch, and its real lyricist, Carole Bayer Singer, have done other work that is more than creditable makes their sub-par score here doubly frustrating.

Question: Is there any reason other than Stephanie J. Block’s knockout job to see They’re Playing Our Song?
Answer: Well, it’s a Reprise production, which means that it is handsomely designed and wittily costumed and there is a certain buoyancy to the whole show, and, to be sure, Jason Alexander has an engaging knack for this sort of sit-com writing and, further, he sings well and provides strong support for Ms. Block. It might even be said that he seems to be giving stage center to Ms. Block. That sort of generosity must not go unnoticed.

Question: What’s wrong with Leap of Faith?
Answer: For one thing, it’s based on a mediocre Steve Martin movie that was already a rip-off of an N. Richard Nash play, The Rainmaker, which was turned into a pretty okay musical, 110 In The Shade, so why do we need another musical about an Elmer Gantry-like con man, who runs a traveling religious caravan, stranded in a drought-ridden small town in Kansas, and who falls in love with a hard-bitten waitress whose son wears braces on his legs from an accident which killed his father? The musical asks four questions: Will the boy walk again? Will it rain? Will the con man be redeemed? Will the tough-talking waitress manage a smile before the evening ends?  If you don’t already know the answers to these questions, then maybe Leap of Faith has a reason to exist.

Question: Is there any reason to see Leap of Faith outside of Raul Esparza’s razzle-dazzle, knock-every-song out of the auditorium, perfectly sleazy, perfectly human, perfectly professional, rip-roaring, positively pulsating star turn?
Answer: Oh, sure. There’s that opening, of course. Against a row of giant corn husks and a mile-wide sky, the townsfolk of Sweetwater, Kansas, dance with lyrical muscularity to movement that recalls the work of the young Agnes DeMille. Indeed, Rob Ashford’s choreography is pretty much thrilling throughout, although there’s not much he can do to change the monotony of all those tambourine-slapping chorus members each time they enter the scene. And, while a little bit of it goes a long way, the vocal acrobatics of Kecia Lewis-Evans (as a woman who has sacrificed her religious integrity to spread the gospel through Esparza’s tawdry sideshows) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (as her son who is so dismayed by the phoniness of it all) seem to send the audience into paroxysms of pleasure, and their ability to do so is authentic. And a preternaturally talented young boy, Nicholas Barasch, as the lame child, sings like an angel. A lot of the music by Alan Menken is derivative, but some of it has genuine power, especially “Are You On The Bus?” and “Walk Into the Sunset.” The lyrics do not avoid either the obvious or the sentimental, but, every now and then, a graceful phrase or a certain gravity creeps into the score, which suggests that, with work, Glenn Slater could, in partnership with Menken, write a memorable song. Leap of Faith, given its roots and its theme, is never going to please everyone, but, if it pulls itself together, on its road to Broadway, it might just be a rousing enough entertainment to serve as a framework for the brilliant and exhausting Esparza. But, at the moment, while Esparza keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, the show swirling around him relies too much on his energy and, in the end, Leap of Faith is merely exhausting.

Question: What about Brooke Shields? You didn’t mention Brooke Shields.
Answer: All right. Here goes. Shields can sing. She has presence. But the giveaway is that, with that elegant bone structure, she stands out in a crowd. She has to spend a lot more time deglamorizing herself before she can be entirely believable as a raw-boned, hard-edged Kansas widow woman. But she doesn’t fully come to life until, wet and disheveled, she falls into Esparza’s arms at the very end. At the moment, you don’t come to see Brooke Shields. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s Raul Ezparza who turns Leap of Faith into whatever kind of event it happens to be in its current state. On the other hand, the idea of Esparza and Block on one stage, together in work that is worthy of their rich talents, is enough to really excite me. I can dream, can’t I?

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

Leap of Faith photos by Craig Schwartz
scheduled to close October 24 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/productiondetail.aspx?id=13732

They’re Playing Our Song photos by Ed Krieger
scheduled to close October 10 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.reprise.org/shows/they-re-playing-our-song-1

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