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Raul Esparza enjoys his 'once in a lifetime' role

Associated Press Modified: April 28, 2012 at 11:00 am •  Published: April 28, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — Raul Esparza was once invited to go backstage at "Les Miserables" on Broadway to learn how the effects were done. His response was the same as when he was invited in Las Vegas to check out the tricks backstage at Cirque du Soleil's "O."

No thanks, he said both times.

"I don't want to know how it works," says the four-time Tony Award nominee who stars in "Leap of Faith" on Broadway. "If I don't believe in the magic, what's the point of going to work eight times a week?"

That Esparza still wants to keep theater illusions sacred is one of many endearing things about the singer and actor who has lately taken on perhaps his biggest challenge: playing a devious faith healer who mixes magic with the divine.

"Very few people in their lifetime, I think, get to have the experience I'm having right now of a musical being built around them," Esparza says. "I felt this role is once in a lifetime. They don't get written like this anymore."

He plays the huckster Jonas Nightingale, whose traveling revival show gets stranded in a drought-stricken Kansas town after their bus breaks down. Despite the threat of arrest from a skeptical sheriff, Nightingale puts on a three-day event to pray for rain and wheedle money from the townsfolk. Then something unexplainable happens.

"'Leap of Faith' is about a guy who comes along and promises to fix everything. He's a complete liar and a sham. And he ends up getting redeemed by grace and he absolutely doesn't deserve it," says Esparza. "A very bad man gets saved."

Esparza, 41, has been a part of the musical — adapted from the 1992 film starring Steve Martin — since an early reading in 2007 and he has stuck with it through various cast changes, overhauls and three directors. There were times that he lost faith it would ever make it to Broadway.

"You get to the point, over so many years, where you start to fear that maybe it's not going to happen and you've hung on all this time, but maybe this isn't it," he says. "I'm beginning to make peace that no work of art — which is essentially what you're trying to create — will ever be perfect or will be exactly what you imagined it to be."

Christopher Ashley, the show's final director, is honored that Esparza stuck with the show. "He's so talented and he's got such a wide-ranging mind and a rock star's voice. He's got it all," says Ashley. "He's got infinite imagination, inventiveness and playfulness."

Esparza, a first-generation Cuban-American, was raised in Florida and made his New York stage debut in the Broadway revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" and then as the Master of Ceremony in "Cabaret." Comfortable in dramas and musicals alike, he's been in the recent revivals of Tom Stoppard "Arcadia," David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" and Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming." His musicals range from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" to "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Taboo."

He's played "Twelfth Night" in Central Park, toured in "Evita," and appeared on stages at Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Ahmanson in Los Angeles. Producers of "Leap of Faith" have put their own faith in Esparza, putting his name above the title of the show.

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