Let the Church Say Amen, Leap of Faith Soars

“Let’s make it rain” – the catchphrase for Jonas Nightingale and his sister Sam.  But when they say it, they don’t mean prayers for the drought in the Kansas town their Mercedes bus broke down in; they mean it in a pouring of dollars at a strip club sort of way.  That’s right Broadway; you got a con man in your midst.   And he is the son of a preacher man.  Let’s face it, the traveling confidence man promising rain is no stranger to Broadway or Hollywood.  In 1954, N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker debuted at the Cort Theatre.  In 1956, Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn starred in the movie.  In 1963, a musical based on The Rainmaker titled 110 in the Shade premiered at the Broadhurst Theatre.  In 1999, the play was revived on Broadway.   However, this new musical is based on the 1992 dramedy that starred Steve Martin and Debra Winger.

Similar to the film, the musical centers on Jonas Nightingale is a traveling, “let the power of God work through my hands” faith healer bouncing from town to town, holding nightly revivals and playing on the hopes and fears of the local yokels.  After the third night (and a possible tryst or two) he blows town after bilking the townsfolk out of all of their money.   Although the concept of the musical is based on the film, it appears that musical doesn’t go by the book (no pun intended).  Besides Jonas and a local paralyzed boy who believes Jonas could make him walk again, the book of this production transforms the sheriff into a female love interest and adds a new cast to assist in raising the roof off of the St. James Theatre. 

The musical begins before the curtain rises.  As the audience takes their seat, they are greeted with the sounds of gospel music, while a cameraman fine tunes his camera on stage.    Suddenly the audience realizes they are a part of show as their faces appear on the screens, located on opposite ends of the stage, and cast members hand out fake money to people seated the first few rows.  The show opens with an electrifying performance by the Angels of Mercy (Jonas’ choir) and Jonas beginning the last night his New York City revival by telling the audience about his road to redemption.  The audience then travels back a year as Jonas, his sister Sam and the Angels of Mercy decide what to do after their bus breaks down.  After realizing that Jonas is wanted in multiple states and the repairs on the bus will take a few days to fix, Jonas and his team choose to pitch their tent in the sleepy, drought stricken town and take them for what little they have. 

The scam is on but not before Sheriff Marla McGowan can give Jonas a stern warning, which does little to stop them.  As night one of the revival begins, Jonas’ has enough info on the town to make them believe has descended from heaven –mirrored jacket and all – to deliver rain.  His staunchest supporter is Jake McGowan, a disabled boy who happens to be the son of the sheriff.  He believes wholeheartedly that Jonas will make him rise up from his wheelchair and walk.   Jonas and his troupe aren’t the only newcomers to the town.  Isaiah Sturdevant, son of choir director Ida Mae Sturdevant and brother of Angels of Mercy ingénue Ornella Sturdevant, is hell-bent on saving his mother and sister from Jonas’ clutches and uncovering him for the charlatan that he is.

Although the sheriff wants Jonas gone, the two enter into an uneasy agreement with benefits and Jonas gets to finish his revival as long as he doesn’t aim any of his empty promises at her son.  Over the next two days, Jonas is exposed, falls in love, watches Jake’s faith give him the ability to walk again, questions his faith and decides to give his traveling church to Isaiah, a true believer.  Inspiring ending, right?  But I know what you FAMERS really want to know is, did Jonas make it rain?  Make it rain he did, literally and figuratively.  Leap of Faith soaks its audience with good vibes, wonderful voices and a new spin on an old tale.

One issue I feel that a movie turned musical has to overcome is any lingering feelings that an audience may carry with them into the theatre about the previous work.  People attach emotion to works of art that have moved them – no matter the genre as well as to the actors that bring a characters alive.  So the question becomes, is this going to be a remastering of an already established work, or will be sad reincarnation of a script with music and dancing crammed in where it could fit in?  Luckily I had never seen the Steve Martin film, so I had the privilege of viewing this work with a fresh pair of eyes.  And to answer my own question, I never felt that this incarnation of Leap of Faith was a comedy with music and choreography shoved in willy-nilly.

Leap of Faith carries enough of the “Broadway Formula” that it will be appealing to Broadway diehards and fresh enough to bring newbies out and into the seats.  Janus Cercone and Warren Leight wrote a book that parallels the movie, but still is its own entity.   Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are crafted well enough to have the audience toe-tapping in their seats.  The choreography of Sergio Trujillo had a Horton- esque quality to it with the movements tailored to every member of the cast.  The cast makes good on the material – Raul Esparza shines brighter than those glittery suit jackets he wears as Jonas Nightingale, Jessica Phillips is convincing as the sadder but wiser sheriff scared to trust and Talon Ackerman’s earnest performance of Jake could melt anyone’s skeptical heart.  But what really makes Leap of Faith rise through to the stratosphere are the voices of Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom Jr., Krystal Joy Brown and The Angels of Mercy choir.  They could give the New Jersey Mass choir a run for its money.  Esparza breaks the fourth wall periodically throughout the show, which I enjoy and with the audience being a part of the musical, the production provides an interactive experience.   The casts projects a universal feel not seen in a lot of musicals and I found the sight of all different body types dancing on the stage to be wonderfully refreshing.  They are not just toned dancers; instead they do feel like individuals you would meet at your local parish.  I don’t know when you visited church last, but the St. James Theatre is holding church every evening and twice on Saturday and Wednesday.  I suggest you hightail it down there and get your dose of hosanna with Leap of Faith.  It is a jump worth taking.

Photos courtesy of Broadway.com

Magic/Bird Got Hops


Rivalries between humans go back as far as Cain and Able.  Since the days of ancient Greece, sporting events have been the best venue to showcase the dedication, passion and majesty of competition.  Throughout the 20th century myriad genres of sports featured great rivalries – Ali and Frazier, New York Yankees and Boston Red Socks and Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.  But no sporting rivalry produced more pageantry than the skirmishes between Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The grudge match between Magic and Bird began in 1979 when Johnson and Michigan State beat Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA finals.  Their rivalry progressed to the pros as both were drafted to the NBA, Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird for the Boston Celtics.  The competition between the Celtics and Lakers did not start with Magic and Bird, these teams have had an adversarial history that predated both Hall of Famers entrance to the league, but with Magic and Bird the rivalry rose to mythical proportions.   Between 1984 and 1987, they went head to head in the finals four times with the Lakers winning the championship three times.    Their contrasting playing styles and obvious difference in skin color made great media fodder, helping to fuel the antagonistic relationship.  It also helped to resurrect a seriously ailing NBA.  Individually, their desire to dominate each other assisted them in being better players. 

In 2010, the production team of Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo brought the NFL center stage when they opened Lombardi at the Circle in the Square Theatre and scored a touchdown.  This spring they traded in the gridiron for the hardwood court of the NBA; Magic/Bird, their latest stage production, opened at the Longacre Theatre on April 11.  Magic/Bird is a contemporary retelling of an epic rivalry and the unlikely friendship that was forged from it.

The play opens in 1991 with Magic informing the world via press conference that he is retiring from the NBA due to the discovery that he had contracted HIV and follows Bird’s reaction.  The audience is then transported back, being introduced to Magic and Bird as collegiate players during the championship game that spawned their rivalry.  It then recounts their transition to the pros as well as their individual rise as stars of the NBA.  The production also depicts how their rivalry affected the fans as well as black/white relations during that time and the media’s role in exacerbating it.  Then suddenly in 1984, while most of the country was choosing sides, Magic and Bird were shooting a commercial for Converse.  While doing so they discovered commonalities within each other and forged the foundation that would develop into a long-lasting friendship.  The play ends coming full circle as Magic comes to terms with his announcement to the media and Bird contemplates retirement.  The two giants would make one last stand together playing for the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team during the Barcelona Olympics in what would be dubbed as the first Dream Team.

Playwright Eric Simonson penned an interesting narrative.  The play moves with the speed of a fast break; the energy is constant and never waivers.  These two men transcended their sport, eventually ascending to the immortal status of titans.  Sure, initially people will fill the seats because they were fans of either Magic or Bird and recall how they innervated the NBA.  But patrons will soon find as I did that what lies beneath this tale of basketball and fierce competition is a genuine human interest story of two men that were able to find the humanity within each other despite differences in style, background and race.  Like Lombardi, Magic/Bird won’t just appeal to sports fans but to anyone that enjoys an emotive drama.  Whether one knows what a power forward does or not is irrelevant, you will still leave the theater feeling as if you have learned more about men behind the legend.  In my book Magic/Bird scores a triple-double!

Part of my fondness for Magic/Bird is the innovative multimedia staging of the play.  Various excerpts of press conferences and games are intertwined with the action happening on stage.  The actors, with the exception of those portraying Magic and Bird, play multiple characters, which I found extremely entertaining.  I also appreciated the role call of the actors at the beginning of the play.  Kevin Daniels recreates the show time pizzazz of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Tug Coker makes his Broadway debut in the role of the ever so serious Larry Bird.  Peter Scolari triumphs as Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss and Bob Woolf.  Deirdre O’Connell is a comedic delight as Dinah Bird, Patricia Moore, bar owner Shelly and Georgia Bird.  Robert Ray Manning Jr. and Francois Battiste complete the cast.   All of them are MVPs.

During this time of year, the NBA kicks into high gear as the most dominate teams secure their place in the playoffs hoping to make it through to the finals.  Broadway in springtime shares the same feverish anticipation as the NBA, new shows open either proving themselves worthy or unworthy of a Tony nomination.   Whether or not Magic/Bird will make it to Broadway’s version of the finals is unclear, but I do commend this production for attempting to push the boundaries of American theater.

Photos courtesy of Broadway.com

A Siriano State of Mind

Rarely has there been an individual that has broken out of the world of reality television quite like Christian Siriano.  Perhaps it is because he is uber talented and at the tender age of 25 has the potential to be fashion icon.  Oprah Winfrey has stated that Christian’s designs are, “works of art.”  And mentor Tim Gun has said that he is “the next great American fashion designer.”  Although Christian did not begin his foray into the world of fashion in New York City, his career has certainly flourished here.  Manhattan is undoubtedly one the Meccas for fashion and dozens of designers and models migrate to New York City to begin turning their dreams of stardom into reality.  Like the song says, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. 

Before Project Runway, Christian made wedding gowns for private clients and briefly interned for Marc Jacobs.  After joining the cast of the fourth season of Bravo’s hit series Project Runway, Christian won over the viewers with his edgy coif, use of the term “fierce” and his fresh, unique design aesthetic.   Along with winning fan favorite, he also won over judges Michael Kors, Heidi Klum and Nina Garcia taking home the $100,000 cash prize, a fashion spread in Elle magazine and a 2008 Saturn Astra.  Following his Project Runway win, Christian debuted his line at Bryant Park and has since been a staple and favorite at New York Fashion Week.  With another Fashion Week in the books, spring 2012 found Christian showing palazzo pants, belted long skirts and striped t-shirts along with elaborate gowns with touches that can be considered classic Siriano.  “It was inspired by a few different things,” he says when asked about the inspiration behind his 2012 collection.  “When I was originally thinking about spring, I really wanted this girl to be kind of cool, lighthearted; I really wanted her to be kind of fresh.  And in researching this, I was looking for anything that was kind of interesting to me.  And I was actually watching this film called ‘Summertime’ with Katherine Hepburn and it’s a beautiful film.  And this one scene where she is in this coral wrap dress and it’s really vibrant and her hair is kind of tousled up and the essence of her in that moment was really beautiful.  And I think that was the whole jumping off point for the story.”  Christian also states that he viewed pictures of sea creatures such as barnacles and sea urchin, and from those pictures he derived inspiration for the color and textures of the collection.

Like most designers that create a fashion empire, Siriano has expanded his talents to include ventures off the runway.  In 2008, he designed a 15 piece collection for Puma as well as virtual prom wear for Gaia Online’s virtual prom.  In December 2008, he signed a deal to design a line of low-cost shoes and handbags for Payless Shoesource which became available in Payless stores in fall 2009.  In 2011, Siriano’s Payless line was expanded. “I’ve been working with them for over three years and it’s been such a great long term collaboration,” he says.  “Some of my fans are quite young and there’s not that many sixteen to twenty-five year-old-girls that can spend over one hundred dollars on a pair of shoes.”  In February 2011, Siriano launched a limited collection for Spiegel catalog, named Christian Siriano for Spiegel.   Siriano was the first designer chosen for the catalog’s designer collaborations line, Signature Styles. 

Designers Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are all American fashion immortals that started their lines in New York City that have since become billion dollar enterprises. It is still unclear if Christian Siriano will fulfill Tim Gun’s prophecy and ascend to Pantheon of American fashion royalty.  In 2010, he was named one of Crain’s Top 40 Entrepreneurs Under 40, which reported that the designer’s line has brought in over $1.2 million in revenue, so it appears the young prodigy is well on his way.  Another aspect that remains clear is the inspiration he draws from New York City.  “I love when I go to an event and you know people, but you don’t know who everybody is and everyone is such a mix.  There is some girl in vintage and there is some girl that is super glamorous. You get such a range in New York City.  It is so eclectic.  You always see something different and special.”     

Photos courtesy of Slate PR and Imaxtree

Slideshow photos:  Imaxtree