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Musical makes one ‘Leap of Faith’ after another

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Brooke Shields’ character was supposed to be falling apart. Shields -- limping around with a cast on her hand -- was trying not to.

Several days before the new musical “Leap of Faith” held its first preview at the Ahmanson Theatre, Shields had hit a critical crossroads in the show’s rehearsals.

Loosely adapted from the 1992 Steve Martin movie about a fraudulent faith healer, the musical drops evangelist Jonas Nightingale (Raúl Esparza) into a drought-stricken Kansas town whose population includes Marva McGowan (Shields), a single mother who is seemingly content with -- but secretly unfulfilled by -- her simple life.

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While the show is undoubtedly Esparza’s -- the Tony-nominated veteran of revivals of “Company,” “Speed-the-Plow” and “The Homecoming” as well as “Taboo” has a larynx-busting eight songs -- the musical’s prospects hinge on Shields’ ability to give Marva as much emotional weight as Jonas.

Shields, a 45-year-old mother of two who has battled depression (she wrote the memoir “Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression”) replaced the sunnier and younger Sutton Foster (“ Shrek the Musical”) from an early 2010 workshop. If Shields’ waitress doesn’t come across as complicated and conflicted as Esparza’s preacher, then “Leap of Faith” could become “The Music Man” with different melodies, someone hawking salvation instead of trombones.

Marva sees right through Jonas, but she might not have the same insight into herself, and the self-doubt, regrets and compromises all come tumbling out in a song called “Long Past Dreamin,’” in which she tries to sort out her feelings for this charismatic interloper. Shields had broken her hand in one rehearsal accident and separated a tendon in her leg in another, but the hurt on her face -- the downturned mouth, the sad eyes -- as she sang wasn’t physical. It looked more like heartbreak.

But now I’m long past dreamin’,

Long past yearnin’

Long past learnin’ things can’t be just right.

‘Cause all that wishin’

Comes to nothin’

When you waken to the dawn’s cold light.

Director and choreographer Rob Ashford (“Promises, Promises,” “Parade”) looked on silently, while composer Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid”) wiped tears from his eyes.

“Breakthrough?” Shields quietly asked Menken when the song was done.

“Yes,” he said.

Striking the right balance in “Long Past Dreamin’” was far from the only challenge facing “Leap of Faith,” which is now in previews and opens Oct. 3 with a potential Broadway debut if the show succeeds in its Los Angeles world premiere. “Leap of Faith” aims to follow the footsteps of earlier New York-bound Ahmanson creations, including “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Curtains” and “9 to 5: The Musical,” but it will face a Broadway schedule filled with other movie adaptations this spring.

Some 10 years in development, “Leap of Faith” has passed through the hands of another director (“ Ray’s” Taylor Hackford) and any number of considered final scenes on its way to the Ahmanson. The show has labored to strike the proper mix of crowd-pleasing spectacle and meaningful exposition -- all without becoming an overly long parable about religion. “I’m not interested in theater that gives audiences answers,” Esparza said. “You want to encourage debate.”

But that debate needs to be guided, and the makers of “Leap of Faith” have wrestled with any number of issues, some as relevant as why the love-'em-and-leave-'em Jonas even is contemplating monogamy. “That’s the million-dollar question,” Esparza said. “It’s exactly the point we are circling, and we haven’t hit it yet.”

As recently as a week and a half ago, Ashford, Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater and book co-writer Janus Cercone (who also penned the movie) were cutting and adding songs, trimming scenes and inserting dialogue as they tried to rein in the show’s nearly three-hour running time without sacrificing character development and back story. Shields worried that her part might suffer among the many revisions. “This is his show. It’s his redemption,” Shields said of Esparza. “But there has to be some catalyst. They need to take advantage of this character -- and it’s hard, because they are trying to make cuts.”

“Leap of Faith” is among an epidemic of movies being reworked for the stage -- a trend accelerated by the blockbusters “The Lion King” and “Billy Elliot” that now includes the new or planned shows “Elf,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Once,” “Sister Act,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Pure Country,” “ Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and “Robin and the Seven Hoods.”

At first glance, “Leap of Faith” suggests an easier musical theater cloning than many of the others. The underlying movie has two demarcated romantic conflicts -- the first between Jonas and Marva ( Lolita Davidovich played opposite Martin), the second between Jonas’ sister (played in the movie by Debra Winger) and the local sheriff ( Liam Neeson in the film). The setting recommends a musical style -- gospel -- while Jonas’ traveling caravan hints at a rock ‘n’ roll tour. And what could be more theatrical than a couple of onstage miracles?

But the very things at the heart of the story -- faith and religion -- are among the most polarizing issues, not something that a feel-good musical is typically built around. “How much is Jesus at the center of the show?” Menken said of the recurring creative debates. “How much is this about Christianity? How much is this about our culture?”

As the creative team wrestled with that and other key issues -- if the show has a miracle, who or what causes it? -- they came to see “Leap of Faith” less as a story of deception than one of revelation. It was only in their relationship to each other and a faith in the possibility of love that Jonas and Marva experienced personal epiphanies and stopped pretending to be people they weren’t -- Jonas the false prophet who preyed on others’ hopes, Marva the damaged widow who had given up hope entirely.

“The film was about a liar and a crook who in a way was never redeemed,” said Esparza, who has been with the production for more than three years of on-again, off-again workshops and staged readings. Said Cercone: “On some fundamental level [the movie] wasn’t completely satisfying. You didn’t really know what happened to Jonas at the end.”

To figure that out, “Leap of Faith” needed to know how he got there.

At the musical’s opening, Marva is skeptical that anything Jonas says or does can help her or her son. Not accustomed to rejection, Jonas redoubles his efforts. Jonas and Marva, quite clearly, are different people with conflicting ambitions.

Menken, Slater, Cercone and Ashford looked for ways in which they might be similar, so that their coming together didn’t play like a contrivance.

“I think Jonas sees somebody like himself,” said Slater, who collaborated with Menken on “Sister Act” and Andrew Lloyd Webber on “Love Never Dies.” “She is somebody who is covering a hurt in her soul with a quick wit and a smart attitude. They see in each other kindred souls.”

The challenge was to not make Marva a spectator to Jonas’ high-wire theatrics. “The part of Jonas is probably the largest part for a male on Broadway that I know of,” said Jim Stern, a lead “Leap of Faith” producer.

For the characters to be redeemed at the musical’s conclusion, they each had to go through their own crisis of confidence, which is ultimately what “Leap of Faith” hopes to be about. “This show is not here to define anyone’s faith,” said Ashford. “It’s just to ask people to have faith.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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