Leap of Faith: Ahmanson Theatre, 10/16/10

25 10 2010

The more I think about Leap of Faith, the more artistically and ideologically problematic it becomes. In fact, it astounds me that Center Theatre Group could support the aesthetically groundbreaking and politically progressive Venice (currently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) alongside the classically-integrated Leap of Faith – which is conservative at best, and downright offensive at worst. Even as I try to champion new musical theater, I have to confess that composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater, and bookwriter Janus Cercone (with Slater) have concocted a truly irredeemable show.

To be clear, I love classic musical theater. The Rodgers and Hammerstein paradigm of the “integrated musical” pervaded my childhood and deeply inflects the way I compose, think, and write about musical theater today. But in deciding to use the integrated form today, one must be socially and culturally attuned: the R&H model stems from post-WWII anxieties about racial assimilation, gender roles, class, and sexuality. The contemporary musicals that most interest me are often ones that consciously tackle the politics of the integrated form and open the narrative to new subjects and possibilities: In the Heights, for instance, gives the Latino community access to the American dream, and Yank queers the central romance. Unfortunately, Leap of Faith assumes that the paradigm of the integrated musical is unproblematic and effects an ideological throwback to Oklahoma – without Rodgers’ tuneful songs or Hammerstein’s engaging plot and character-driven lyrics.

Leap of Faith opens in the dry fields of Sweetwater, Kansas. An all-white ensemble of country folk sways like stalks of corn in the wind (“we know we belong to the land …”), gradually crescendoing to a sequence of Rob Ashford’s intricate partnering. The beauty of this Oklahoma-like, Agnes de Mille-inspired choreography diverges completely from the gospel chorus of ethnic others that soon enters stage: mostly African-American, further coded as social outsiders through tattoos and dark clothing. These racialized “Angels of Mercy” pose a threat to the order of the white community. Led by Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza), the Angels of Mercy are a nomadic “ministry”: they drain each gullible midwestern town of money with flashy promises of miracles from their revival tent. And Sweetwater is certainly in need of a miracle or two: the crops desperately need rain, and waitress Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields) worries that her crippled son will never walk again.

The divide between white-washed Sweetwater and the racialized outsiders is perpetuated throughout the show in musical styles (pop v. gospel) and choreography (ballet vs. fierce “handography”): never shall the two meaningfully meet or interact. Opening a show with both an African-American chorus and a Caucasian chorus was a radical move in the 1927’s Show Boat. But in a new musical produced in 2010? This racialized segregation of choruses is inexcusable. Even more problematic is the religious “sign” that Jonas and his Angels of Mercy conjure at the end of Act I: the cross hanging above their revival tent bursts into flames. Resonances of the KKK, anyone? Symbols like a burning cross exceed their narrative contexts and point again to the deep, troubling racialized divides of this show.

Only one man from the Angels of Mercy eventually assimilates into the community of Whitewater: their “Harold Hill”-like leader Jonas Nightingale. The stunningly talented Raul Esparza glitters on stage – quite literally, when he dons a disco ball jacket that reflects across the theater. Though Esparza is actually Latino, he has historically been cast as “white” in shows ranging from tick, tick…BOOM! (Jonathan Larson) to Sondheim’s Company (Bobby). In Leap of Faith, then, it is unsurprising that his character Jonas reads as “white” – and thus not too different from the comfortable, pre-established Kansas community.

Jonas finds his home in Sweetwater by way of the tried-and-true marriage trope. I should mention that one must also pass as straight to belong to this community. A master of reading personalities, Jonas “outs” one resident of Sweetwater in an early scene; the gay man gets one line in the show – complimenting Shields’ shoes to solidify his sexuality – then disappears from narrative view into the tidy male-female pairings of Ashford’s choreography.

Though the phony evangelist usually has a meaningless fling in each town, he actually falls for the down-on-her-luck waitress Marva and becomes a father figure to her crippled son Boyd (the endearing Nicholas Barasch). With a remarkably weak voice and minimal stage presence, Shields is performatively dominated by Esparza: even though Marva may tower several inches above Jonas, the female is dominated by the male in this relationship. The couple is united by a newfound, “genuine” faith when – (spoiler alert?) – Boyd miraculously learns to walk. The nuclear family takes center stage as a second spectacular miracle closes the show: rain begins to pour from the heavens.

Oklahoma‘s rousing finale unites Laurey and Curly, the farmers and cowhands, Oklahoma and the United States. In a similar vein, Leap of Faith joins Marva and Jonas at the very moment that the rain nourishes the crops in the mythologized American midwest. These multiple layers of the marriage trope in Oklahoma and Leap of Faith establish a productive and reproductive national system – while banishing the outsiders that threaten this order. Leap of Faith‘s Jonas is successfully assimilated to the community as a white, Christian head of the household. His troupe of racialized others moves on to another town, much as Oklahoma‘s dirty and overly-sexual Jud Fry accidentally kills himself to pave the way for the pristine, white community to sing its solidarity.

As striking as Ashford’s choreography may be, dance is generally employed during scene transitions rather than being truly “integrated” with the plot – and the racially segregated styles of movement and music are continually problematic. Menken’s score is surprisingly unmemorable, while Slater’s lyrics are cliche as ever. Janus Cercone and Slater’s book is also predictable from the outset – offering no interesting twists or turns en route to the rousing, special-effect-laden finale …

Except perhaps that flaming cross. Transferring this show to Broadway will take a leap of faith, indeed.

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28 10 2010
LEAP OF FAITH: 38% – Bitter [UPDATED] : Bitter Lemons

[…] BITTER The more I think about Leap of Faith, the more artistically and ideologically problematic it becomes. In fact, it astounds me that Center Theatre Group could support the aesthetically groundbreaking and politically progressive Venice (currently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) alongside the classically-integrated Leap of Faith – which is conservative at best, and downright offensive at worst. Even as I try to champion new musical theater, I have to confess that composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater, and bookwriter Janus Cercone (with Slater) have concocted a truly irredeemable show. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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