Keep your eye on the Lord while the fake evangelist empties your pockets. The musical “Leap of Faith” is part of a long tradition of theatrical hoodwinking. Based on the 1992 film starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger, the show has a story line that evokes charlatans from “The Rainmaker” and “The Music Man.”

With music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”), lyrics by Glenn Slater and a libretto by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, “Faith” performed poorly on Broadway in 2012, doomed by withering reviews and “toxic word of mouth,” as the New York Times put it. But the show has found a second life elsewhere, including director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha’s revival that opened last weekend at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis.

This clap-happy production, under the aegis of Minneapolis Musical Theatre, is full of energy and high spirits. The performers, backed by members of the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, sell the show hard. They skip through the aisles and even do cartwheels to pump zest into a show that otherwise is a paint-by-numbers assemblage.

“Faith” centers on Jonas Nightengale (Matt Tatone), a con man who, with his sister Sam (Jill Iverson) and bookkeeper Ida Mae (Sonya Nolen-Moon), goes from town to desperate town, fleecing believers. The sham revivalists’ latest mark is Sweetwater, Kan., a prairie hamlet beset by drought.

Despite his cheerful opening number “Rise Up,” Jonas is more intent on lifting the townspeople’s wallets than their spirits. He tries to win over Marla (Emily Jansen), who turns out to be the sheriff, and a lonely widow to boot — her husband died in a car crash that left her teenage son, Jake (Andrew Hey), wheelchair-bound. Jake wants to walk again, and becomes a true believer in Jonas’ message, giving Jonas second thoughts about his criminal career.

Menken’s “gospel lite” music doesn’t capture the soulfulness of the real thing that makes believers of doubters, though Marla’s wistful ballad about the dreams she’s given up (“Long Past Dreamin’ ”) gives her character a little complexity. Otherwise, “Faith” lacks sophistication and authenticity.

Tatone invests the slick charlatan with showbiz pizazz and the gloss of Joel Osteen. With his shifty eyes, Tatone shows us a slippery schemer who can escape any situation. And he has a good enough voice, although it’s probably better suited for a Vegas casino than a church.

Jansen is tough and tender, showing us the conflict in Marla between her heart and her duty. Hey injects Jake with total faith, though there’s a question about his sincerity. And as Ida Mae’s daughter Ornella, Brianna Graham delivers sweetly on “Step Into the Light.” This ensemble’s performances give this show its only prayer.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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