Broadway Review: ‘Amazing Grace’

Amazing Grace review Broadway musical
Joan Marcus

Ye of little faith will find this religious-uplift musical tough sledding.

There’s an audience out there for “Amazing Grace,” flawed as it is, but they may not get to see this religious-uplift musical if the $16 million show’s marketing machine doesn’t reach its target audience. Christian congregations and other faith-based groups should respond to this epic-scaled saga of how John Newton, an 18th-century British slave trader played by Josh Young, experienced a “miraculous” religious conversion, became an Anglican minister, and went on to write 200 church hymns, including the stirring title piece. But ye of little faith will find it tough sledding.

Christopher Smith, who wrote the straightforward (some might call it old-fashioned) linear book and collaborated on the overblown but serviceable score with Arthur Giron, took material from “Out of the Depths,” the autobiography of Newton (1725-1807), to tell the backstory of how this popular hymn came to be written. Newton is the dissolute son of a slave trader who leaves college to go into the family business. An experienced if indifferent merchant seaman, but a more enthusiastic slave trader, he travels to Sierra Leone to collect his living merchandise, cages them like animals for the long sea voyage to England, and sells them back home at public auction.

These grim scenes are vividly — and chillingly — staged by helmer Gabriel Barre (who had more fun in the 2000 Manhattan Theater Club production of “The Wild Party”). Choreographer Christopher Gattelli (a Tony winner for “Newsies”) has his boisterous way in the African scenes in which Princess Peyai, a tribal leader costumed (by Toni-Leslie James) in golden plumage and played with flamboyant style by the marvelous Harriett D. Foy, claims the shipwrecked Newton as her own slave master — and her personal slave.

It falls to the rest of the excellent design team — Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce (the heroically scaled sets), Ken Billington and Paul Miller (the evocative lighting), and Jon Weston (the transporting sound design) — to keep the story moving fluidly from land to sea. The booming storms at sea pack a visceral punch, and an underwater scene is an amazing visual effect.

Back on land, there’s a sidebar plot in which Mary Catlett (the sweet-faced, clear-voiced soprano Erin Mackey), Newton’s faithful fiancee back home in England, becomes a secretly active member of the abolitionist movement. But the musical keeps pussyfooting on the slavery issue, remaining fixated on bad-boy Newton, who has his conversion after he miraculously survives one of those storms at sea.

That’s dramaturgically unfortunate because Newton’s manservant, Patuch (the big-voiced and absolutely splendid Chuck Cooper), and Mary’s personal maid, Nanna (Laiona Michelle, also wonderful), are far more compelling characters. When Cooper delivers his moving signature solo, “Nowhere Left to Run,” everyone in the 1,162-seat Nederlander house stops breathing and leans forward. Michelle’s fiercely delivered “Daybreak” has the same effect.

And, frankly, the slavery issue is far more interesting than the predictable father-son scenario in which a stern father (as played by the invaluable Tom Hewitt, more nuanced than written) and his profligate son engage in a mighty battle of wills, eventually reconciling in a deathbed scene. But even the personable Young (who made a strong impression as Judas in the 2011 revival of  “Jesus Christ Superstar”) can’t make the flawed hero more interesting; at least, not in the presence of his redoubtable manservant.

It’s also hard to care about Mary Catlett being pressured into marriage by a powerful and well-connected naval officer, when that villain is caricatured as a buffoon, forcing poor Chris Hoch to play him as the clown he is. With all those suffering slaves (like Nanna’s innocent daughter, Yema, played by the lovely Rachel Ferrera) standing around, who can concentrate on the travails of the whiny hero and his long-suffering fiancee?

The score is more of a problem. Although sung with admirable clarity by a large and musically articulate cast under the fine direction of Joseph Church, the songs are never there when you need them.  In the very first number, “Truly Alive,” young Newton sings earnestly about wanting to get out from under his father’s yoke. But where’s the number that musically illustrates the bad behavior — drinking, gambling, carousing and being disrespectful to his elders and betters — that caused the breach with his father?

And maybe this is just being petty, but if John Newton is supposed to be a poet, it would be nice to see him pick up a pen once in a while.

amazing-grace-review-broadway-musical

Broadway Review: 'Amazing Grace'

Nederlander Theater; 1162 seats; $139 top. Opened July 16, 2015. Reviewed July 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A Carolyn Rossi Copeland, Alexander Rankin, and AG Funding presentation of a Goodspeed Musicals production of a musical with book by Christopher Smith & Arthur Giron, and music & lyrics by Smith.

Creative

Directed by Gabriel Barre. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Sets, Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Ken Billington & Paul Miller; sound, Jon Weston; hair & wigs, Robert-Charles Vallance; fight & military movement; orchestrations, Kenny Seymour; music direction, arrangements & incidental music, Joseph Church; production stage manager, Paul J. Smith.

Cast

Josh Young, Erin Mackey. With: Tom Hewitt, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch, StanleyBahorek, Harriett D. Foy, Laiona Michelle, Rachel Ferrera, Elizabeth Ward Land.

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  1. Dana says:

    I just recently saw this play along with Finding Neverland and An American in Paris. This one was my favorite! It was amazing and there hasn’t been a play that has moved me this much since Les Miserable. The story was awesome the music and actors were amazing! I recommend this play as the one to see when you visit New York. Critics don’t like it because it depicts a reality of how the African American’s were treated and it shows a man who found redemption in his actions. We can’t change history, just learn from it!

  2. Jan Syvertsen says:

    I totally love this play. I saw it two times and just cannot understand how people can criticize it. The story is engaging, and kept me in it both times from beginning to end. Everyone I know who has seen it loved it! The music was great…there was laughter and tears….I hope it stays on Broadway for a long time.

  3. LJ says:

    I saw this play last night. I thought it was dreadful! The story is poorly told, leaping from one preposterous scene to another. The music was instantly forgettable – all except the final singing of the hymn Amazing Grace itself. That is indeed a beautiful song, but unfortunately it served only to point out how lousy the other songs in the show really were! My husband said, when we walked out of the theater, “Well, that’s two and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.” What a turkey this show is! While there clearly were people who liked it in the audience, many of the seemed to have come in for free. (I saw someone giving away tickets in front of the theater. I didn’t get my ticket for free, but I didn’t pay full price, either.) I can only assume that this show is destined to close fairly soon.

  4. Terrye says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this production. Beautiful music, beautiful costuming and a beautiful story of the sobering affect of man’s inhumanity to man and God’s power to transform. So sorry that the reviewer could not see that this is a show that has the power to bring new life and engender hope in those she describes as ones of little faith.

  5. JAnne says:

    I’m sorry that there is such a bias against anything that has christian characters…This writer is blinded and unable to see that everything they compliment makes this a great piece of theater…If it were a different theme (read more taudry) this writer would never have downplayed the successful elements and tried to steer people away. Clearly a bias to the subject matter which no one should accept as good journalism. If you want to reject the viability of this story, fine, but do so on proper grounds. Weak review.

    • joyce young says:

      I’m a Christian who appreciates the balanced view…giving great credit where credit was due as well as pointing out some credible weaknesses: Just what we would hope for in preparing to view something that’s going to involve an investment of time and money on our part. Thanks to Ms. Stasio’s reporting, we are compelled to see the production for its gripping portrayal of the slave trade and its stirring musical solos rather than (be disappointed with) its weak storyline following the father-son relationship. Wanna see it!

  6. Taswin K. says:

    I agree with Marilyn on that “it would have been nice to see John pick up a pen once in a while”. Otherwise I would definitely see it again on my next trip to New York.

  7. Martha Bewick says:

    I loved this musical, found myself in tears throughout the evening, and plan to go back to NYC to see it again. It’s “old-fashioned” in the values, but totally contemporary in offering a searing look at the roots of black/white, slave/master relationships, with the echoes we see and hear all around us today. It’s powerful, poignant, offering shocking moments at the slave auction that make your heart scream. Are the moments of reconciliation and forgiveness believable? After Charleston, I believe they are. This is something original, and important. It has its flaws, but so do we all.

  8. Anna K. says:

    I disagree! I think that this was an amazing production. the way that they pulled off all of the underwater scenes and the amazing casting, this was an a spectacular one. I really recommend.

  9. There’s a terrible irony in Cooper’s character’s REAL (African) name being revealed late in the show as “Pakuteh,” and being completely misspelled in this article.

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