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.