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A giant ‘Leap’ for Brooke Shields

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“I’m going to eat food that I don’t have to rip open,” said Brooke Shields in mock amazement, studying the menu at an Italian bistro in Brentwood.

Beside her water glass, her iPhone lay ominously in wait. At any moment it might summon her back to the Ahmanson Theater, where the new musical “Leap of Faith” was deep in technical rehearsals, or “tech,” the painstaking process of calibrating sound, lighting and scenery cues as the actors walk through their paces.

Shields had been temporarily released and was taking opportunity to sit down for dinner. But that phone had its eye on her.

“I’ve never done tech before,” said Shields. “I’ve done a lot of Broadway, but I’ve always been replacing somebody. So I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me? They don’t have stand-ins?’ But it’s great, it’s part of the whole process, and I’m loving it.”

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“It’s just really, really long,” she added with a laugh.

Shields didn’t look as though she had been spending 14 hours a day on her feet under stage lights. Nor was she persuasive as someone who had ever eaten a prepackaged meal.

In a sleek black jacket and skinny black pants, with an artfully folded blue scarf at her neck, she could have passed as any Westside fashionista, if it weren’t for her unmistakable beauty -- which actually seemed disproportionate to the requirements of a weeknight dinner, even a really nice one.

The staff of the restaurant, where she said she often dines with her husband and two daughters, would have given her anything she wanted. Her requests, however, remained modest.

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“But I do need a fork,” she added after turning away a waiter’s colossal pepper grinder.

For the star of a new musical with its sights on Broadway, Shields, 45, has startlingly little of the diva about her. Case in point: She broke her hand early in the rehearsal process for “Leap” but brushed off the pain so as not to attract too much attention.

“We were doing a dance scene in the diner where my character, Marva, works. My finger went back to here. I knew something was wrong but I was, like, ‘I cannot make this about me.’ I don’t ever want to be that high-maintenance person, you know, ‘I have a hangnail, so production has to shut down.’”

Three weeks later, when her hand was too swollen to lift Marva’s coffeepot, Shields grudgingly saw a doctor, where she also learned that the “charley horse” that had been bugging her was a torn muscle.

“I have a high tolerance for pain,” said Shields. “You just go, OK, I’ll take four Advils every hour. It’s not that I’m a martyr. But the show does have to go on.”

“Leap of Faith,” billed as “Broadway-bound,” will premiere at the Ahmanson -- with previews Sept. 11 through Oct. 2 -- after more than a decade in development and workshops.

“That’s the nature of a new musical, the time it takes from an initial idea to its realization,” explained Tony-winning director and choreographer Rob Ashford, who came more recently to the project.

The score is by Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner for numerous scores and songs (including “A Whole New World,” and “Under the Sea” for Disney), the lyrics are by Glenn Slater of Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid,” and her co-star is Raúl Esparza (“Speed the Plow,” “Company”).

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“It’s just a brand-new American musical opening in a small town,” deappanned Ashford.

“Leap” is based on a 1992 movie featuring Steve Martin as a bunco itinerant preacher, Jonas Nightingale, and Lolita Davidovitch as Marva, the small-town girl who doesn’t buy his line. The film gives Marva little to do; Jonas’ complaint that “She has fuming down to an art” pretty much sums up the role.

In adapting the story to the stage, the creative team expanded both of the leading characters’ “journeys,” Shields said. Marva is now a widowed single mother and “the heart of” the drought-stricken Kansas town where Jonas and his gospel-singing accomplices, the Angels of Mercy, pitch their tent.

Ashford said “Marva could be a typical ingénue, but we needed someone with more in their boots than that.” He maintains that, in spite of her glamour, Shields’ appeal is that she is very normal. “She’s a person,” he said.

Shields has starred on Broadway in “Grease,” “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Wonderful Town,” but in each case she took over a part mid-run. “I’d kind of become the replacement girl,” she said wryly. “If they wanted to eke out a couple more months of box-office, they’d call me.”

But these gigs won her first the attention and then the increasing respect of the theater community -- the New York Times’ Ben Brantley called her “an unpretentious delight” in “Wonderful Town” -- and eventually led the creators of “Leap of Faith” to offer her the lead.

Shields said creating a role from scratch has been both exhilarating and scary.

“I’m used to singing in a character voice, being told, ‘Do it with an accent, or do it in a ‘40s style,’ and with a wig, or a dialect. When they say, ‘We want to hear you,’ I think, ‘What do you mean? I imitate people, that’s what I do,’” Shields said. “You feel naked.”

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Of course, anybody might feel a little nervous about singing duets with both Esparza and Kendra Kassebaum (an admired Glinda in “Wicked”), and finding a place among theater veterans, who, as Shields put it, “sleep, eat and breathe this stuff.”

She told her costars from the outset, “‘Look, I’m going to try to steal from you, because you’re the best.’ And they said, ‘Well, what do you think we’re doing out there every day?’

“It’s hard to find your own sound, not being a recording artist,” she went on. “For example, Raul has a very specific, amazing sound and range and style. He’ll say, ‘Today I’m just going to “mark it” [musical theater slang for ‘just go through the motions’] and I’m, like, ‘Your “marking it” is the rest of the world’s top-notch performance.’

“It’s very all-encompassing, but I actually have a life that I have to get back to. Very inconvenient.” Shields sighed. That life includes her husband, Chris Henchy -- a comedy writer for, most recently, the film “The Other Guys” -- and two young girls, 7 and 4, who had just recovered from colds that made Shields fear for her already-taxed vocal cords as she snuggled them to sleep.

She enjoys exposing her daughters to the magic of behind-the-scenes theater and returns to it herself almost as a form of training.

“The work ethic in the theater is so refreshing. I need to have a dose of it from time to time.

“If you’re lucky enough to be in this kind of environment, with this amount of talent surrounding you all day long, you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to be inspired by it and changed by it.”

The iPhone lighted up, and Shields took the call. “They said they’ll call me in an hour to tell me when they’re going to call me.” She smiled at the hovering waiter. “Could I have a double espresso?”

calendar@latimes.com


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