Someday, I hope, medical science will advance far enough to invent a surgical procedure called lipofaith, on the order of liposuction, for the removal of excess religiosity from Americans, so many of whom just now seem severely bloated by this disheartening and dangerous form of spiritual edema. By “religiosity,” I add hastily, I don’t mean anything that has to do with genuine religious belief, much less any form of serious religious thinking. In the contemporary American mind, at least as currently depicted in the news media, God seems to exist either as a facile excuse for bullying those you dislike, or as a miracle elixir that solves all problems, an incongruous blend of tooth fairy and superhero.
Naturally, the pseudo-religious con artist has become an American archetype: A nation where so many want to believe in miracles inevitably breeds its own evil twin. But even here, America’s insistently would-be-innocent mind finds an extra wrinkle. In European art, con men who peddle religion, like Moliere’s Tartuffe, get exposed, after which only dotty old ladies, like Orgon’s mother in Tartuffe, retain their faith. But commercial American entertainments, playing both sides against the middle, insist on supplying the miracle, so that even the con man can repent and learn belief.
Hence Leap of Faith (St. James Theatre), the new musical version of the 1992 movie, in which the hero (Raúl Esparza), a gentrified Elmer Gantry, finds his rolling revival bus stalled in a drought-stricken Kansas town, where, with high-tech assistance from his sister (Kendra Kassebaum), he not only plays rainmaker, but romances the lonely female sheriff (Jessica Phillips), and even, apparently, cures her crippled kid (Talon Ackerman). Moral, one gathers: Pretend intensely enough to have faith, and feel guilty enough about it when exposed, and God will cut you plenty of slack, even if you’ve racked up a rap sheet longer than your arm.
God isn’t the only one, in this heavily over-manufactured context, to cut the hero many miles of slack. His second in command (Kecia Lewis-Evans), a redoubtable black lady who leads the phony preacher’s gospel choir and does his two sets of carefully fraudulent books, defends him for bringing good to the suckers he lives off. She and her daughter (Krystal Joy Brown) keep the choir from rebelling although they haven’t been paid in weeks. Even the virtuous book-cooker’s son (Leslie Odom Jr.), a genuinely religious soul who’s dropped in for a visit on vacation from Bible college, feels more than a few pangs of guilt when he turns the cooked books over to the sheriff. Racial distinctions, which you might expect to cause tension, are perceived mainly as matters of musical idiom.
What keeps Leap of Faith functioning—and it functions, on a visceral level, very effectively—is that everyone involved seems to have tacitly agreed to behave as if the patent falsity of its story didn’t exist. Despite the demented contradictions and absurdities of the Janus Cercone–Warren Leight script, the acting, under Christopher Ashley’s direction, is all carried out with clear-eyed sincerity. The songs, by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, shift sensitively through a variety of pop-flavored idioms, from plaintive country ballads to rousing gospel, matching their tone to the moment. They offer little that’s memorable—it’s hard to imagine this heavily retreaded material giving them much inspiration—but everything’s done proficiently, with Slater’s lyrics particularly well crafted. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, similarly, provides all the expected leaps and bounds to keep the show moving. But, unless you fall for its fake pieties, the show’s only magical moment comes from a costume change: As a gospel number at the troupe’s revival meeting peaks, the chorus parts to reveal Esparza, formerly clad all in black, now decked out by costume designer William Ivey Long in metallic glitter-fabric. Though it’s a bright spot, I wouldn’t exactly call it a saving grace.