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Chicago by John Olson

Amazing Grace
Bank of America Theatre


Harriet D. Foy and Josh Young
Stories of redemption can indeed be powerful, and the real-life story of John Newton, who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace" in 1773, is a powerful story of transformation and salvation. Newton was a slave trader Englishman with no particular religious beliefs who, after being "pressed" into military service at age 17, became something of a slave himself to an African princess who sold her own people into slavery. Rescued after five years in captivity, he survived a near-shipwreck on the voyage back to England and experienced a spiritual conversion, later becoming an abolitionist and Anglican priest. As remarkable as this biography is, with or without its embellishments and compression of time, we need a good deal more investment in the character than script bookwriters Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron give us. Though much talent and money has been invested in the musical, it fails to deliver the sort of catharsis it seeks because it doesn't give us enough reason to care about the man who was so thoroughly changed.

The problems start right at the beginning. We're introduced to Newton Jr. (Josh Young) with the song "Truly Alive," which tells us little except that Newton has a young man's wanderlust—nothing so remarkable about that. We meet his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) and learn a little of their history, but not enough. Then there's his father John Sr. (Tom Hewitt), who is in this story, though not in historical record as far as I can tell, a slave trader. Senior and Junior are estranged, as evidenced by the way Junior had quit school without his father's permission to set off on the sea voyage from which he has just returned. Mary secretly spies on the auction of the slaves Junior has brought back and becomes sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, just as the nobleman Archibald Gray takes a romantic interest in Mary. The first act is filled with exposition, thanks to the introduction of these fictional intrigues involving Mary and John Senior, but there's little chance to actually experience the characters as fully developed people.

In its hour and ten minutes, the first act finally gets us to a point where the major plots have been established. John Jr. and his slave valet Thomas (Chuck Cooper) have survived a battle at sea against a French warship, but where will they go from here? Mary must fend off the marriage proposal of Major Gray while avoiding discovery of her abolitionist activities. It's a lot to set up, but the plot moves along better as everything is resolved in the second act. That is, once we get past the part where the bound and shirtless Newton Jr. is forced to watch African natives perform the second act opening number. The number is entertaining both for Christopher Gattelli's African-inspired choreography and the buff Young's shirtlessness, but it doesn't serve much narrative purpose.

Good stuff and bad stuff happens as the plot progresses, but the ultimate redemption of the slave trader Newton Jr. and the victory of the very moral Mary don't quite earn the big musical moments we're given to celebrate them, thanks to the sacrifice of character development for plot. Even at that, the exposition is muddy. Where exactly are we? Without referring to the program or having familiarity with the story, we might assume the American colonies rather than England. And what leads to Newton's involuntary "pressing" into military service? It appears that a scene was dropped before the Chicago press opening might have clarified that.

The anthem-heavy poperetta songs by Christopher Smith in his professional songwriting debut don't add much to either character development or plot, but they do provide a showcase for some most impressive voices. Young has a booming bari-tenor that brings down the house, and the always reliable Hewitt is a knockout with his second-act solo, as is Tony-winner Chuck Cooper with his. Mackey's soprano sounds terrific and her Mary—a strong, independent young woman who takes great risks for true love and a moral cause—hints at what could really be a fascinating character if more fully developed. There's great character work and vocals from Harriet D. Foy as the African Princess Peyai and Laiona Michelle as Mary's nanny, Nanna. Major Gray is played by Chris Hoch as more of a comic figure than the threatening villain he might have been. It seems director Gabriel Barre wasn't quite able to decide where to take him, and it's emblematic of Barre's struggle with finding a tone for the piece. Moments of comic relief—not all that funny to begin with—come at the wrong times. The songs, with the exception of the opener "Truly Alive," aren't distinguished or particularly distinguishable from each other, but they are richly orchestrated by Kenny Seymour, as is the incidental score by Joseph Church.

Amazing Grace looks terrific, though, as it should, given the involvement of set designer Eugene Lee (working with Edward Pierce) and lighting designers Ken Billington and Paul Miller. Lee and Pierce's simple but effective set is built around masts and rigging. Billington and Miller create some quite nifty effects for naval battles and deadly storms, as well as an underwater sequence that brought applause on opening night. Toni-Leslie James's costumes are period stunners.

The piece, which originated at Goodspeed Musicals, seems to have hopes of becoming an historical musical epic of the Les Misérables variety, but it lacks the latter's clarity of storytelling, compelling hero, or its rousing anthems or lovely ballads. This engagement is billed as "pre-Broadway," but no Broadway opening date or theatre has been announced, so time will tell about that. The caliber of talent hired for the cast and creative team shows the producers have faith in the project. With some heavy rewriting of book and score, they might have a chance.

Amazing Grace will play through November 2, 2014, at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago. Tickets and information available at all Broadway in Chicago ticket offices ticketmaster, by phone at 800-775-2000 or www.BroadwayinChicago.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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