Warren Leight Joins Leap of Faith Writing Team, Revising Musical; Raul Esparza Stars in Readings

News   Warren Leight Joins Leap of Faith Writing Team, Revising Musical; Raul Esparza Stars in Readings
The Broadway-aimed musical Leap of Faith, fueled by gospel and country sounds, took a leap forward with a weeklong reading that began Nov. 3 and culminated in three backers' presentations Nov. 10-11. Playbill.com learned that a new co-librettist — Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Side Man — is on board, and new songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater were heard in the Manhattan reading.

Ra Photo by Craig Schwartz

Leight now shares libretto credit with Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay of the 1992 film on which the musical is based.

Tony nominee Raúl Esparza (Company), who created the role of flim-flam preacher Jonas Nightengale in the Los Angeles tryout of the musical comedy in fall 2010, was back in the pulpit for the 2011 presentations. Christopher Ashley, who shepherded Memphis to a Best Musical Tony win, directed the Leap of Faith reading. Rob Ashford directed and choreographed in 2010.

For the reading, stepping into the role created by Brooke Shields, whose other commitments prevent her from moving forward in the show, was Jessica Phillips (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). The reading cast also featured Kendra Kassebaum, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Derrick Baskin and others.

Shields and Esparza starred in the show's world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. in 2010. Since then, the show has been overhauled and drastically reconceived, with a mostly new libretto and a number of new songs, Playbill.com learned.

Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," Sister Act), tweeted the following message on Twitter (@AlMenken) on Nov. 11: "LEAP OF FAITH readings went so well! Hard to believe, but I think we've fixed this musical, after all these many years of work. Happiness!!" After the Nov. 10 presentation, he tweeted, "First of the LEAP OF FAITH presentations today. The response is better than anything I expected. Will wonders ever cease?" Menken is an eight-time Oscar winner. With lyricist Slater, he penned new songs for the Broadway version of the beloved animated film "The Little Mermaid." Menken and Slater's songs for Sister Act, the Musical, were nominated for a 2011 Tony for Best Score. A Broadway berth for Leap of Faith has not been officially announced.


Warren Leight
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The world premiere of Leap of Faith opened Oct. 3, 2010, following previews that began Sept. 11 at the Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre.

Esparza played Reverend Jonas Nightengale, the consummate flim-flam man, and Shields was Marva, the small-town woman and single mother who challenged everything he believes in. Kendra Kassebaum played the role of Sam, the Reverend's sister and sidekick.

Principals in L.A. also included Nicholas Barasch, Jarrod Emick, Kecia Lewis-Evans and Leslie Odom, Jr.

Composer Menken previously told Playbill.com that "the [Leap of Faith] story is not unlike other stories that have been adapted for musicals, but the gospel-revival aspect of it was pretty unique, and especially the cynical, behind-the-scenes look at the gospel revival leading to something actually more emotional and redeeming at the end, made it really interesting."

Menken also said that his score for the new musical is influenced by country music as well as "American roots music, and there are some songs that are very heartfelt that, I would say, are in more of a Broadway idiom, for lack of a better word: Basically, songs that come from the part of the soul that doesn't speak, necessarily, in a specific style but speaks in the appropriate musical vocabulary that will complement the rest of the score."

Here's how the show was characterized by the Ahmanson Theatre in fall 2010: "When his traveling ministry breaks down in a small Kansas town, part-time reverend and full-time con artist (Esparza) quickly pitches a tent and invites the locals to a revival. The sheriff is determined to stop Jonas from separating the townspeople from their money, but Jonas' real challenge arises when he meets a pretty waitress and her son, whose love forces an ultimate cynic to take a real leap of faith."

Read Playbill.com's recent Brief Encounter Q&A with composer Menken.

The new musical is based on the motion picture "Leap of Faith" produced by Paramount Pictures Corporation and written by Janus Cercone.

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