'Amazing Grace': Theater Review

Needs more than prayers

Josh Young, a Tony nominee for 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' stars in this new musical inspired by the life of the reformed sinner who wrote the beloved hymn.

There's no questioning the sincerity of Amazing Grace, which recounts the true story of the penitent slave trader who penned that popular hymn. This ambitious new musical braves a Broadway landscape in which matters of faith tend to be filtered through irreverent satire — think The Book of Mormon, Hand to God, An Act of God — instead weaving an earnest drama of redemption grounded in forgiveness both human and divine. However, while the tale of oppression and liberation ultimately climbs stirring peaks, it's symptomatic of the show's problems that its most vibrant and compelling character is a regal African mercenary who dishonors her ancestors through the heartless exploitation of her people.

The resonance of "Amazing Grace" for Americans was deepened in June, when President Obama ended his eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, with a solo of the hymn, bringing mourners to their feet in the wake of the shocking white-supremacist gun violence that had claimed nine lives. Heartfelt sentiments relating to the nation's shameful history of slavery and racism no doubt contribute to get audience members standing at the conclusion of this musical, as the full ensemble's voices unite in an uplifting rendition of the title song. But that emotional release is a long time coming in a 2½-hour show in which the stories of the secondary black characters are invariably more involving than those of the blandly drawn, white central figures.

The musical was conceived by Christopher Smith, a former Pennsylvania police officer and youth outreach and education director, who wrote the music and lyrics, co-authoring the book with playwright Arthur Giron. The show reaches Broadway following a Chicago tryout, and regrettably, coincides with the arrival of a far more audacious and revolutionary work of 18th-century biography, Hamilton. Unlike that groundbreaking new musical, Amazing Grace belongs to the outmoded tradition of the countless lumbering stepchildren of Les Miserables, tortured out of historical and literary sources with too little sense of how to translate their stories into contemporary entertainment vernacular. This is by no means the dullest of them, but the nobility of its intentions are rarely matched by comparable craftsmanship.

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Staged on imposing sets by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce that blend a nautical motif of ropes and rigging with the thatch work of African village huts, the show opens in 1744 as wayward adventurer John Newton (Josh Young) returns to England. He is reunited with his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) and his stern father, Captain Newton of the Royal Africa Company (Tom Hewitt), who insists that the cocky rogue give up his boozing and seafaring to resume his education. But John has lost his faith since the death of his mother and refuses to be controlled. He also has become hardened beyond recognition to Mary, who wonders what happened to the openhearted boy she once knew.

When John steps in for his father to conduct a slave auction, Mary lingers behind to witness the graphic scene of captive Africans being sold into servitude and branded by their new owners. Raised by Nanna (Laiona Michelle), a black governess who displays more maternal feeling toward her than her own shrill mother (Elizabeth Ward Land), Mary has improbably made it to adulthood without ever considering the stark reality of slavery. That changes in an instant when she helps a female slave (Toni Elizabeth White) to escape during a skirmish created by the underground abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Mary catches the eye of Major Gray (Chris Hoch), an insufferable fop with royal connections, viewed by her calculating mother as an ideal match. In league with the abolitionists, she agrees to spy on him, ignoring the concerns of Nanna, who reluctantly opens up about the circumstances of her capture and the loss of her daughter in "Yema's Song," one of the more moving numbers of a plodding first act.

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It feels overly schematic that John was also raised by a nurturing black servant, Thomas (the excellent Chuck Cooper, outshining the material). In a superfluous framing device that seems less a narrative necessity than an indication of the creative team's nervousness about marginalizing the black characters, Thomas marvels in direct address: "With his hands John Newton enslaved thousands, but with his words he helped to free millions. You have heard the song, though you may not have known it was his. How could something so beautiful come from someone so wretched? I will tell you, because I was there and it is a story that must be told."

That hopelessly old-fashioned beginning points up the show's central failing. The writers never manage to clear the hurdle of telling a story about slavery in which the persecuted victims of social injustice are supporting players. The imbalance is not helped by the fact that neither John nor Mary comes alive with anything approaching the wounded vitality of Thomas or Nanna. Or even the imperious Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), a charismatic, borderline campy Sherbro chief's daughter, in cahoots with the French to sell her people into bondage. Her appearance at the top of Act II — after an impressively staged scene in which Thomas saves John from drowning off the coast of Africa, where their ship is wrecked — injects a level of energy too seldom sustained in director Gabriel Barre's production.

Young and Mackey both give committed performances, but their singing has no emotional range — he's all one-note intensity while her light soprano is pretty and period-appropriate but short on passion — and their romance is the stuff of trite melodrama. However, the issues lie less in the actors' work than in the unnuanced conception of their roles. John's enlightened transformation appears to come not from his shocking betrayal of Thomas but from his discovery of being a mere pawn to Princess Peyai, from his subsequent deathbed reconciliation with his father, and from his prayers to God to spare his ship in a storm. Rather than being persuasively dramatized, his conversion becomes little more than an epilogue.

The most affecting moments come from Cooper's Thomas and Michelle's Nanna, both of them figures of great dignity and contained sorrow; and oddly enough, from Hewitt's Captain Newton. The depths of his repentance, both for his failings as a parent and, more subtly, for his brutal profession, make the character's arc seem a less mechanical redemption than that of his son.  When John takes his place center stage to begin "Amazing Grace," fast-forwarding to his future as a clergyman, it's almost as if he hasn't earned that right. Young gives his all to the role, but the episodic book and pedestrian songs do him no favors.

Cast: Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Tom Hewitt, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch, Stanley Bahorek, Harriett D. Foy, Laiona Michelle, Rachael Ferrera, Elizabeth Ward Land, Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Mike Evariste, Sean Ewing, Savannah Frazier, Christopher Gurr, Allen Kendall, Michael Dean Morgan, Vince Oddo, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Gavriel Savit, Dan Sharkey, Bret Shuford, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Toni Elizabeth White
Director: Gabriel Barre
Music & lyrics: Christopher Smith
Book: Christopher Smith, Arthur Giron
Set designers: Eugene Lee, Edward Pierce
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designers: Ken Billington, Paul Miller
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Fight & military movement: David Leong
Music direction & arrangements: Joseph Church
Orchestrations: Kenny Seymour
Presented by Carolyn Rossi Copeland, Alexander Rankin