PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Don't Dress for Dinner and Leap of Faith — Just Add Water

By Harry Haun
27 Apr 2012

Raúl Esparza; guests Lea Salonga, Tony Roberts and Jackie Hoffman
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meanwhile, back at the Copa, Esparza made his entrance sans the palm leaves he richly deserved as Jonas Nightingale, the show's unfailing, constantly-charging engine. "Sometimes, there are parts that you feel like there's so much that you can use of yourself in it, and something clicks!" he advanced.

"Doing research for this, I got to see a real revival, which was extraordinary. We based a lot of stuff on that. And I also grew up going to a Jesuit school, but it's not just the religious thing. It's a whole series of things — Jonas' charm, Jonah's sense of humor, Jonas' sex appeal, Jonas' relationship to his past — and then the religious side where, if you go to Catholic school, of course, you wrestle with the devil.

"I've been a part of it since I did a reading of it while I was doing Company. It's been just extraordinary, but it's one of those shows that takes the time it takes to put it together. I've done so much in the meantime and always come back to this."

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have rewarded him with a Rose's Turn at the end called "Jonas' Soliloquy." It allows him to sing out a new self-image. "The first time I learned that number, it shocked me. But it's great writing from Alan and from Glenn."

"We have nobody on Broadway like Raúl Esparza," opined Jim Dale, a sincere fan since they co-starred in the 2003 Off-Broadway revival of Comedians. "He's proven himself over the years to be one of the most talented and brilliant actors — not only as an actor but as a song-and-dance man as well — and, with this particular show, I think it will at last give him a chance to win some of those major awards that have eluded him for the last few years. He should get the Tony, and I'll be the first one to stand up and cheer if he does."

Even the youngest in the cast could second that, and 13-year-old Talon Ackerman, the believer in the wheelchair, did just that: "Raúl Esparza is the best. He's so professional. There's no word that can explain Raúl Esparza. He's a little bit of everything. It's such a pleasure to share the stage with him every night."

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Raúl Esparza, Jessica Phillips and cast
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Ackerman made his acting debut at age four as Chip in a community-theatre Beauty and the Beast (a Menken show, please note). It pleased him no end to learn that Nick Jonas played the part on Broadway. "Really?" he bug-eyed. "Well, let's hope we have the same career then."

His "mom" and Esparza's lady-sheriff love interest, Jessica Phillips, arrived, direct from Mount Olympus it seemed, in a white, free-flowing ethereal creation from Marc Bouwer. "It was a thrill for me," the actress said of the evening. "In a piece that's been this long in the making, it's been really exciting to come into it in the 11th hour and know that I'm a part of helping this show take shape. I came in last November during the workshop in New York. I like that this character is so vulnerable and that she uses her caretaking to motivate her through her grief. I like that she's fragile and tough all at the same time."

Leslie Odom, Jr. is glad to be on board and on Broadway (like Christian Borle, his "Smash" lover, during the series' hiatus). "I fought to get in this room. It conflicted a bit with 'Smash,' but I knew roles like this don't come along much."

He plays a seminary-trained addition to the gospel show. "It's a dream come true. Working with friends — it doesn't get any better than this. I love Raul's soliloquy — his 11-o'clock number, and I love the stand-off between me and him. It's great fun."

Kecia Lewis-Evans, his mother in the show, gives a large-lunged rendering to her songs. "What I love about Ida Mae is that she's somebody who has a deep faith but she has made some choices that are maybe not so honorable. She's justifying them, but she's willing to listen to other points of view that primarily come from her son."

A friend of the court, Marc Kudisch weighed in with a positive vote: "I thought every one was incredible. I thought the work that they did from L.A. to New York was incredible because I saw it in L.A., as well. It's more personal, and that's what I really enjoyed about it. It wasn't just about a show. There was the show, and then there was that really personal side that I thought made it hugely effective."

Warren Leight, a Tony-winning playwright of Side Man, who here shares book credit with the original screenwriter Janus Cercone, is holding down two jobs these days. "I'm still show-running 'SVU' by day. I'd go to the set from 7 AM to 1 PM, I'd come here from 1 to 5, I'd go back to the set from 6 to 8, and then I was here from 8 PM to 1 AM every night in the month. It was tough time.

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"This is my first big, gas-guzzling Broadway musical ever. Mayor was a sweet, cute, nine-person show with an orchestra of six. It opened at the Village Gate and moved to the now-defunct Princess Theatre, and that was half my lifetime ago. That implies that I have, at most, one musical left. Oddly enough, Alan and I did work on a musical ten years ago that didn't go. It was a Damon Runyon musical. [The short story was called 'Little Pinks'; the 1942 movie, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, was called 'The Big Street.']. It's a mystery what goes and what doesn't.

"They'd been going for nine years [developing Leap of Faith], so my job was to come in and bring fresh eyes to it. I think at some point Glenn and Alan had written over 80 songs. Nine years in, you don't know right from wrong so I came in fresh. I loved the original movie, and I saw great things in what had been done. The way I approached it was: What is really working? And where does it need to go? There were beautiful songs that I thought were maybe revealing too much about a character too early so I helped reposition them. In the Los Angeles production, Marla, the love interest, was a waitress at the café, and there was a sheriff who was an antagonist. I made Marla this sheriff. It gave her more purpose. I just wanted to make sure everyone had something to do."

All of director Christopher Ashley's ships seemed to be coming in this week. Nice Work If You Can Get It, which docked a few days ago, is something he did in its first incarnation, when it was called They All Laughed. (It's now helmed by Kathleen Marshall.)

As a producer, he's bracing for his first preview of the Doug Wright-Amanda Green-Trey Anastasio musical, Hands on a Hardbody, at his La Jolla Playhouse. "We open in two weeks, and it's going to be extraordinary," he promised.

"And then I'm doing a movie that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote called Lucky Stiff , based on their show of the same name. We're casting it now. Jason Alexander we just cast today as Vinnie, the optometrist's brother. It goes before the camera June 15th in L.A. and San Diego."

Leap of Faith was something he took over and took on. "I took it over from Rob Ashford, whom I love. Remaking a musical in Broadway previews is an exciting prospect," he deadpanned. (And whom do you wish it on, Mr. Ashley?)

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