Amazing Grace, the first musical of the new Broadway season, is a fascinating and impassioned, yet not wholly satisfying, look at a key point in the abolitionist movement in England. The focus is on John Newton (Josh Young), who wrote the venerable hymn of the show’s title. He is a quarrelsome, restless and musically talented young man heavily involved in the slave trade. He rebels against his prosperous father (Tom Hewitt), spars with his true love, Mary (Erin Mackey), and shows no respect to any authority figures. We follow his tumultuous journey that ends in personal redemption and full reversal in his support and participation in the selling of slaves.
The musical unearths a slice of history—the story of John Newton and his life changing epiphany—which is unknown to most Americans. As written by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, there is a great deal of information conveyed in the production. This can be problematic when the material is presented in matter-of-fact tones. Compare Amazing Grace with, for example, Hamilton, another historical drama opening this season. Librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted what could be a pedestrian topic and, instead, created a dynamic, colorful and dramatic theatrical presentation. Amazing Grace would have benefitted from such imaginative and provocative thinking. This is not to say the musical is a long, boring history lecture. Some of scenes can be quite powerful as when the selling of captured Africans, caged in cramped quarters, is brutally portrayed. The battle scenes and special effects are quite riveting.
The cast is earnest and forthright. While the material is not that compelling the actors work very hard in delivering the show’s weighty message. Josh Young as the impetuous and somewhat reckless John Newton has a roguish air, but his performance lacks nuance and subtlety. His strong voice resonates throughout the Nederlander Theatre, but charm and vocal strength can only go so far. Erin Mackey, as Mary Catlett, has a gorgeous voice and shows spirit as she aids the abolitionists and seeks her real true love. Tom Hewitt, as Captain Newton, John’s father, is intense and blustery. Only towards his untimely demise does he show the character’s true feelings towards his son. Chris Hoch’s Major Gray is a bit too buffoonish, yet is sufficiently narcissistic as he seeks the affection of Ms. Catlett; Chuck Cooper as the proud manservant Thomas and Laiona Michelle as the Catlett household slave, Nanna, give reserved, but passionate performances. Their individual plights, separate, but equally harrowing, form the emotional core of the musical.
The score by first time Broadway composer Christopher Smith is pleasing, but never elevates itself beyond the conventional. There is the occasional rousing number such as the opening “Truly Alive,” and inspirational with the song “Testimony,” but overall the music and lyrics are too undistinguished. For a musical that is called Amazing Grace we only hear snippets of the title song’s melody throughout the show. With the way the score and book are shaped we do not hear the full rendition of the hymn, performed in its full reverence, until the musical’s end.
Director Gabriel Barre is at his best guiding the many action sequences and incorporating the production’s special effects without overwhelming the show. Unfortunately, there are so many scene changes that achieving a consistent flow or developing an emotional core is difficult.
The creative team has produced exemplary work. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s scenic design, primarily the sets representing the tall ships and the Act I finale underwater sequence, are laudable. Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound design are valuable collaborators with Lee and Pierce. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are regal and sumptuous; and David Leong’s fight sequences add realism and authenticity to the production.
Amazing Grace, a heartfelt effort not fully realized.