By Bill Blankenship
You can’t judge a musical by the movie that inspired it, and you can’t gauge a local production of the musical by what critics wrote about its Broadway production.
Those are gospel truths about “Leap of Faith,” the must-see production playing through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Douglas P. Goheen Theater of Topeka West High School, 2001 S.W. Fairlawn Road.
The script’s inspiration was a 1992 movie with the same title in which Steve Martin plays it straight as Jonas Nightingale, who touts himself as a faith healer and preacher as his caravan moves from town to town for revivals during which Nightingale miraculously reveals the the flock’s closely guarded secrets as he fleeces them of their hard-earned money because it isn’t God whispering in the reverend’s ear, it’s one of his cohorts who through eavesdropping on town gossip has learned everyone’s closeted skeletons.
That’s about where comparisons end between “Leap of Faith” the movie and “Leap of Faith” the musical in which gender and relationships are mixed and matched.
In the musical, Jonas (Skyler Lindquist) and his troupe’s bus breaks down in Sweetwater, Kansas, which is experiencing a drought, meteorological, financial and spiritual. Already in a deep financial hole, Nightingale convinces his entourage that they can raise enough money to get back on the road by staging a three-night tent revival.
Enter Marla McGowen (Breana Tiffany) who introduces herself as just another townswoman but as Jonas raises her suspicions reveals she is in fact the sheriff. (Shades of Marion the librarian meeting Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” and foreshadowing of its premise that event the most ardent conman can be renewed by the love of a good woman.)
Sheriff Marla gives the preacher three days to get out of town and promises she will be keeping watch on him, but it’s business as usual for Jonas, his accomplice kid sister, Sam Nightingale (Liz Freeman).
They dispatch the show’s choir, the Angels of Mercy, led by Ida Mae Sturdevant (Armanda Boxley), to collect the background and unearth the secrets of the citizens of Sweetwater so Jonas can miraculously reveal them in the revival tent.
Using a Bluetooth device through which Sam feeds information to Jonas, things go great on the first night until a boy in a wheelchair begs to be blessed. For some reason, Jonas skips him and moves to “heal” an elderly woman.
The boy, Jake (Hunter Lyden), is determined to get his miracle as he believes in them despite disbelief in them not only by Jonas but by Jake’s mother, who turns out to be Sheriff Marla, whose faith was shattered years earlier in a traffic wreck that killed her husband and crippled her son.
Marla and Jonas find themselves attracted to one another, and Jake remains undeterred on his quest for a miracle, which leads to the climax of the revival’s third night during which everyone’s faith gets tested.
There is a secondary story that deals with Ida Mae, lead singer of the Angels of Mercy, and her two children, Ornella (Sirena Saulters), who is a believer in Jonas and Isaiah (Kevin Coffman), who on break from Bible college and who trusts in a power higher than this so-called preacher.
All that said, the plot is the least significant reason for attending “Leap of Faith.” Its big draw is the music, which helped earn it Tony Award nomination for Best Musical despite it being Broadway’s biggest flop of 2010. It closed after 25 previews and 19 performances, losing investors $14 million.
However, subsequent reviews of regional and local productions of “Leap of Faith” have drawn hallelujahs from critics concerning the shows’ musical numbers by eight-time Oscar winner Alen Menken (“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Disney’s The Little Mermaid”). He described them to Playbill.com as drawing from “gospel, country and American roots music.”
The Topeka West production, directed by Ryan McCoy with musical direction by Joshua East, choreography by Sally Glassman and set design and technical direction by Michael Callaway, is sure to get the same reaction, particularly as East conducts a pit orchestra that mixes some of the Chargers’ best student musicians with some of the city’s best players.
In addition to the aforementioned actors, the cast includes:
- Angels of Mercy: Zak (Braden Chaffin), Carl (Adrienne Davis), Amon (Tate Donohue), Rosa (Taylor Engel), Caesar (Shakeem Mickey), Fletcher (Jared Schooler) and Danielle Carter, Courtney Dice, Kaylee Dinwiddie, Elda Flores, Lindy Karrer, Rhiannon Kincaid, Zoey Nichols, Smantha O’Hara-Arrington, Taylor Province, Tulsa Ragnhall, Gage Scott, Jon Waggle, Marissa Wagner and Shawna Wilson
- Townspeople: Susie Raylove (Kayla Beitz), Deputy (Lucas Jackson), Amanda (Claire Perry), Emma Schlarp (Zoe Tippets) and Quinn Crider, Grace Ellis, Kaylee Free, Hugo Gonzales, Ben Lopez, Elecktia McMullen, Malissa Newcome, Carla Pagan, Charles Pershall, Summer Taylor, Alora Wilder and Beth Winkelman
Orchestra members are:
- Piano: Paul Priddy and Connie Roth
- Bass: Johnny Belk and Forrest Evans
- Guitar: Daniel McCready
- Drums: Jason Degenhardt
- Violin: Mahogany Green-Clanton and Donna Mealy
- Viola: Hailey Zimmerman
- Cello: Will Hess and Rosalyn Taylor
- Woodwinds: Steve Funk
- Trumpet: Nathan Jones-Walker and Stephen Patterson
- Trombone: Andrew Anderson and John Martin
Other production staff members include:
- Stage manager: Erin Watts
- Assistant stage manager: Maria Rupp
- Dance captain: Breana Tiffany
- Assistant technical director: Ethan Crapser
- Props: Melanie Ralston
- Costumes: Liz Calloni
- Instrumental coordinator: Carolyn Voth
Crew members were:
- Sound: Zoe Tippets and Jon Waggle
- Makeup: Reagan Rohr and Bethany Sparks
- Publicity: KorieAshburn, Landyn Gentry, Hugo Gonzales and Alora Wilder
- Costumes: Hannah Gaul, Madeline Lopez, Charles Pershall and Beth Winkelman
- Lights: Deven Baumechen, Gage Scott, Colton Schimmell, Dylan Soza and Britton Thompson
- Props/grips: Emily Ellis, Lucas Jackson, John Martin, Maya Miller, Annaleeza Stenti and Taylor Wingert-Ashlock
- Ushers: Alexis Gaudreau, Landyn Gentry, Lawanda Mayfield, Regan Neeley, Hadley Overstreet, Tori Payne and Cheynne Whyte
- Set construction: Connor Brown, Isaac Dallen, Emily Ellis, Megan Fessman, Sierra Griffus, Luis Iracheta-Sanchez, Malachi Lewis, Chris Miller, Blake Noriega, Taylor Wingert-Ashlock and Braden Zerferjahn