By Karen Isaacs
Amazing Grace, the new Broadway musical about the writing of that iconic song, strives to be up-lifting and inspirational just as the song is. Unfortunately, it also feels like hard work.
The show had its first workshop performances at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester. It has taken it years to move on to Broadway.
This project has obviously been a labor of love by Christopher Smith who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with Arthur Giron as well as director Gabriel Barre. In a program note the three explain their purpose – not just to tell the story of the song and its composer, John Newton, but to also tell a larger story – “to illuminate the struggle of ordinary men and women who were prey to the evils of slavery and those who risked everything to end the hideous practice in Britain.” They also point to the reality that slavery still exists in the world today. Smith, who is obviously the driving force behind this, is an absolute newcomer with little if any formal musical or theatrical training.
Their goal is admirable. The slave trade is horrible. It does exist today in more places in the world then we want to admit.
I had always thought that the song “Amazing Grace” was a folk song that probably came from the southern mountain regions. It just had that sound. So I was surprised to learn that the song was actually published in 1779 in a hymnal in England.
The story of the composer, John Newton, is one of those that sounds stranger than fiction. Newton was born into a family of slave traders. He was an atheist, a libertine and was active as a slave trader himself. A storm off the coast of Ireland led him to God and he later studied theology was ordained as an Anglican priest. But before that he was a captain of a slave ship and was actually enslaved himself in Sierra Leone. It was only after another near shipwreck, that he turned his life around. As a priest, he became active in the abolitionist movement.
In reality he only wrote the lyrics to the song and it had a number of different melodies until it was paired with the melody we know today.
The musical follows the basic outlines of Newton’s life. Interspersed into the story are several others — his love for Mary Catlett (they did marry eventually), the nascent abolitionist movement in their town of Chatham, his servant Thomas (Pakutch) and her servant Nanna both of whom were actually slaves, and even a Sierra Leone princess who sells others into slavery.
Much of the production is very good – it has an effective scenic design by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce including effective shipwrecks. The lighting by Ken Billington and Paul Miller is also effective. Toni-Leslie James has created costumes that reflect both Africa and 18th century England. Christopher Gattelli has choreographed both English gavottes and minuets as well as Africa dances.
The performances are also good. Josh Young shows us both sides of John Newton – the cynical profane man and the man redeemed by love. He also suffers beautifully when he is an indentured sailor, a prisoner and a slave of an African princess. His voice is powerful.
Erin Mackey brings a sweet soprano to the role of Mary, the young woman who stands by him and argues for abolition. She is feisty and conflicted between the conventions of the period and her emerging beliefs. But her quick conversion to the abolitionist cause early in the piece borders on unbelievable.
Tom Hewitt plays John’s father as the strict and unbending character he is. Chris Hoch is excellent as the pompous British Major who is charged with enforcing the slavery laws and is courting Mary.
Chuck Cooper is excellent as Thomas who not only plays John’s servant/slave but also opens and closes the show. He is given two powerful songs, “Each and Every Life” and “ Left to Run.”
Also deserving praise is Rachel Ferrera as Yema, a runaway slave and Harriett D. Foy as the sadistic Princes Peyai. Foy was in the cast at Chester.
Which brings us to the book, lyrics and music. The songs are often rousing and attempt to suggest the two main genres of the show – songs that sound slightly old-fashioned and appropriate for a show set in the 1700s and songs that reflect a more African feel. But few of the songs are memorable though sung and danced well. The book is clunky – it is both melodramatic and clichéd as well as having dialogue that no-one would view as conversational even in the 1750s.
Amazing Grace is a show that tries so hard and yet doesn’t quite succeed. The show drags and too much attention is paid to the events leading up to Newton’s conversion with very little about his activities after it. This is a show that needs serious trimming – removing duplicative and extraneous material. One ship-wreck scene is effective; two becomes tiring.
Those who find the message important will moved by this show; but it will bring out the cynic in the rest of us. It just feels earnest, well intentioned and manipulative. If you think Les Miz is the greatest musical ever, you will find this enjoyable.
Amazing Grace is at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.com.