Los Angeles Times - - Arts & Books - BY JOHNHORN

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.

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 lar­ynx­bust­ing 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.

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

‘How much is this about Chris­tian­ity? How much is this about our cul­ture?’

—COM­POSER ALAN MENKEN, voic­ing some of the ques­tions that the mu­si­cal has faced

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?

Heaven and earth

But the very things at the heart of the story — faith and re­li­gion — are among the most po­lar­iz­ing is­sues, not some­thing that a feel­good 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, offa­gain 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’ high­wire 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.”

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.


Bob Cham­ber­lin

Brooke Shields is a head­liner in “Leap of Faith” in L.A. Its cre­ation: a decade and count­ing.


Bob Cham­ber­lin

Brooke Shields por­trays a wid­owed mom who’s not sure how much be­lief to in­vest in Raúl Esparza’s faith healer. Pre­views are un­der­way at the Ah­man­son.


Shields looks up from her script dur­ing re­hearsals. “Leap of Faith” has Broad­way am­bi­tions, but first: L.A.


Com­poser Alan Menken reg­is­ters his re­ac­tion to what’s go­ing on in the re­hearsal room. The mu­si­cal opens Oct. 3.


Di­rec­tor-chore­og­ra­pher Rob Ash­ford in­structs dancers dur­ing re­hearsals for the world pre­miere.

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