This show is a particularly sad failure, as it actually had an enormous amount of potential. Based on the fascinating Steve Martin movie of the same name and with a score by the great Alan Menken, it should have been one of the most interesting shows of the season.
But the original film walks a very fine line between cutting satire and inspirational heartwarmer, and the stage show, with a mawkish script that doesn’t realize how cheesy its dialogue sounds, and an awkward, unnecessary framing device that only serves to distance the audience from the action, simply isn’t written well enough to maintain that delicate balance, resulting in a confused, unsatisfying and frankly somewhat hypocritical mess of a show.
The film also hinged on Steve Martin’s brilliant performance—complex, powerfully bitter and genuinely charming in spite of it all. But the stage show has talented star Raul Esparza giving easily the worst performance of his career. He plays the show’s leading man, who is supposed to be a deceptively charming but vaguely well-meaning con man a la Harold Hill, as a swaggering sleazeball who couldn’t fool a five-year old and certainly can’t make the actual audience like him.
The score relies heavily on big gospel showpieces, but these are far less effective than the ones in Sister Act; most of them are simply earthbound, which is about the worst thing an upbeat gospel-choir showstopper can be (particularly unfortunate given that the original film’s gospel-choir soundtrack was one of the best things about it). Of all these numbers, only the title-song ever really takes flight, and it doesn’t come until the very end of the show.
When the score focuses on the characters, Menken’s legendary talent does shine through, and there are interesting songs like “Are You On the Bus?”, “Long Past Dreaming”, the sizzling dance number “Dancing In the Devil’s Shoes” and the powerfully introspective “Jonas’ Soliloquy”. Best of all is “I Can Read You”, a nuanced character duet with some of the best lyrics of the season.
This, as I said, was a show with potential, and in the more interesting parts of the score we see glimmers of what it might have been, but if this show is unusually fascinating as theatrical trainwrecks go, it is still ultimately a vintage theatrical trainwreck, and its abject failure does not come as much of a surprise.