A Lower Calling

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There's a great star to be found in Leap of Faith ? and it isn't Raul Esparza   Somewhere, 1992 is laughing its ass off. Sister Act, which hit screens almost exactly twenty years ago, is a solid Main Stem hit, while two less-successful films also released that same year ? Newsies and Leap of Faith ? have just added their names to marquees alighting the Great White Way. Whodathunk that the year that saw the Heights learn how to talk to an angel and Bill Clinton evict George H. W. Bush from his White House bunker would bear so much fruit?   Alas, not all of it is ripe for the picking. Leap is an underwhelming star vehicle that even most Steve Martin purists leave out when combing his oeuvre about an evangelist suddenly changed when making a pit stop in a small town full of aw shucks hucksters. The film source may have been less inherently musical, but it shares theatrical DNA with everything from The Music Man to Elmer Gantry to The Rainmaker and its musical adaptation, 110 in the Shade. Leap writer James Cercone and Tony-winner Warren Leight (Side Man) have been brought in to remold the work, but, as directed by Christopher Ashley, it's still a few prayers short of a miracle.   One problem is Cercone and Leight's decision to frame the evening as though theatergoers were actually attending a revival themselves in the St. James Theatre, with Jonas Nightingale (Raúl Esparza) and his scheming sister Sam (a good Kendra Kassebaum) calling people sinners and taking tithes from those in their seats. It's discomfiting and doesn't fully work as the show's actual plot ? small town Kansas sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips) is onto Jonas' game, and then later, into him ? unfolds back in more traditional rhythms. The book also withholds two key pieces of information regarding Jonas. Was he ever a good guy and a true believer? And which members of his traveling choir believe in him, and which know he's a fraud?   Another problem is actually its raison d'etre: star Raúl Esparza, who exists in an odd limbo between what Jonas needs to be and who he needs to be for Jonas. Esparza is a smart actor but one who hews to the dark side of delivery. Jonas needs to be a jaded manipulator but one who, incredulously, lets himself be won over at the particular juncture in his life at which Leap takes a peak. Esparza's Jonas never feels truly threatening ? would he really bilk a wedding ring from a grieving widow? ? but he also never seems to buy into the show's messages of redemption and community; he's too savvy for platitudes. The performer seems to stand outside of Jonas rather than immerse himself in the man. And without a believable transformation, the sturdier stuff around the center weakens.   That stuff includes Kecia Lewis-Evans as Jonas' choir leader, Ida Mae, as well as Krystal Joy Brown and Smash's Leslie Odom Jr. as her children, both bathed in the gospel that Leap strives to include. All three of them are excellent, as is Phillips, who enjoys several of Leap's best ballads. Other songs, however, from the team of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (who also did the music for the Sister Act adaptation), are a mixed bag of exalt-us jubilance and plaintive country time-fillers, like "Rise Up!," "If You're Faith is Strong Enough," and "Fox in the Henhouse." Very few are memorable, as is Sergio Trujillo's choreography.   I've saved one piece of the Leap puzzle for last: young Talon Ackerman, who plays Jake, Marla's disabled pre-teen son. This wheelchair-bound character has faith in the power of healing and in Jonas, and through his eyes, we see just what draws a soul to these revivals. And whenever this talented, present performer took the stage, I became a believer too.   Leap of Faith           St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. 212-239-6200. http://leapoffaithbroadway.com/ $47 ? 137. Thru May 13.  

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