Friday, April 6, 2012

Leap of Faith

I'm going to take a step away from Disney theme parks, please bear with me. 

I went to the theater last night to see one of the early previews of Leap of Faith.  There’s a lot I could criticize about the book of the show itself, and even some praise, but it was the actual theater going experience of the show that I want to write about.  .  I cannot claim to have ever been to one of the “revivals” portrayed on stage, something which probably comes as no surprise to those of you who know me, so my only experience with mega preaching is of flipping through the channels and encountering the televangelist types and moving on quickly.   I should also mention that I’ve never even seen the movie on which this musical is based. 

Entering the St. James last night was one of the most awkward experiences I have had getting into the theater.  I realize it was an early preview, but let’s face it, the actual entry process into the theater and the scanning of tickets is basically the same for every show they do, so why the confused mob of people all trying to cram into a single door at ten minutes to curtain? 

But let’s leave that aside and move on to the experience of being seated and then encouraged to “interact” with cast members placed in all levels of the theater as though they were ordinary members of the audience.  It seems almost every new show (see Once, which does it better) is now determined to spill out from the stage and have a preshow.  This one also included a live video feed that played on four screens, two on each side of the house. 

These screens fascinated me throughout the show as they were used fairly consistently to film Raul Esparza as Jonas Nightingale or members of his “Angels” during the “revival” scenes.  Well, it seemed that was the convention, except for a couple of moments that the video feed seemed to be on for scenes that weren’t part of the “revival” performance.  This may have just been a mistake made in previews, and it was clear this was still an early preview as evidenced by the hold in the second act when the automation on the tent structure on stage failed. It did lead to a convention throughout the show that I found frequently distracting wherein the videographer and the stagehands were constantly on stage filming or setting up and hooking up pieces.  Usually this took place during dance numbers which somewhat covered up that action, but I was consistently distracted by what seemed like far to much work for not enough scenic payout.

Getting back to the screens though, what I found so fascinating was that even I, who attend the theater on a regular basis and love live performance, found myself watching the screen more than the stage.  Some of this was clearly because I was sitting in the mezzanine and due to the lack of rise in the St. James mezzanine and the decision to build out the stage well over what would have been the orchestra pit and I think several rows out into the audience, the sight lines were atrocious.   I totally understand the desire to bring the show closer to the audience, and clearly they were making an attempt to envelope (or shall we say immerse?) the audience in the action, but the whole thing felt, well, fake. On the one hand that’s a good comment on the story line itself, but on the other I was struck by the fact that for a good portion of the show, I felt like I was in an amusement park being asked to “interact” in a way that felt forced.  The entire time that they used the platforms out in the audience just felt like cheap pandering to try to make the audience feel like they were part of the show, without actually really achieving the effect.

Maybe I’m a party pooper about these things or I was in the wrong mood last night, but there’s a time and a place for these things.  If you want me to take your show with any seriousness, asking me to raise my hands up for Jesus and trying to get me excited pre-show with what felt like forced audience warm up just isn’t going to do it.  That said, there was at least half the audience that clearly loved the whole experience.  I’ve never had such vocal seat companions.  The elderly gentleman sitting near me was openly weeping at the end and kept repeating “wow”, loudly. Very loudly.   I’m obviously the wrong demographic though, and I have complete faith that this show is going to tour really well in the Midwest.

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