Broadway Reviews

Amazing Grace

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 16, 2015

Amazing Grace Music & lyrics by Christopher Smith. Book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron. Directed by Gabriel Barre. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Music direction, arrangements & incidental music by Joseph Church. Scenic design by Eugene Lee, Edward Pierce. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Ken Billington & Paul Miller. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance. Fight & military movement by David Leong. Orchestrations by Kenny Seymour. Dialect Coach Gillian Lane-Plescia. Cast: Josh Young, Erin Mackey, with 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, Hollie E. Wright.
Theatre: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Schedule: Tues 7 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 7 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Amazing Grace
Josh Young
Photo by Joan Marcus

Amazing Grace, which just opened at the Nederlander, may have the noblest intentions of any major musical I've ever seen. As its title suggests, it tells the story behind the beloved hymn: how its religiously indifferent author, John Newton, experienced a miraculous conversion in the mid 1700s that inspired him to turn his back on the slave trade and fight for British absolution. Its messages about the infinite capability of humanity and the power of God to transform even the hardest hearts are about as positive, uplifting, and spiritually vital as anything in the Broadway musical — and pretty much any art form — can get. So, if that's the kind of musical you want or need to see for yourself or your family, waste no time in buying tickets.

Such people will not — indeed, probably should not — care that nothing in Amazing Grace lives up to its thoroughly edifying ambitions. Christopher Smith (book, music, and lyrics) and Arthur Giron (book) may have crafted one of the most goodhearted shows imaginable, but they have not turned out a show that is especially good.

To begin with, the people who surround John (Josh Young, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar three years ago) are of the lifeless, archetypal variety that present no real challenge to him or to us. His beloved, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), is virginal, but also a hot-blooded revolutionary who will stop at nothing to free the shackled blacks around her. John's father (played by Tom Hewitt) is a strict disciplinarian who disapproves of all the ways John is living is life, and isn't afraid to impress him into the Royal Navy to get his point across. Major Gray (Chris Hoch) is a deceptively nasty redcoat fop who's sufficiently connected and willing to keep John down so he can guide Mary into his arms and not, well, rock the whole slave ship.

Then there's John's personal "servant," Thomas (Chuck Cooper), a saintly fellow whose loyalty gets him roped into his master's disastrous naval misadventures and ends up not only saving John's life, but teaching him by example just how terrible a practice slavery really is. His reproachful looks and anguished cries and glares of despair upon each new betrayal make it impossible for us to miss the point, or fail to predict the circumstances under which John's testimony will develop and he will begin working to the right the wrongs he's let loose upon his soul. And though his path is destined to take him through literal stormy seas and into confrontations with violent Sierra Leone natives led by a princess (Harriet D. Foy) who has no compunction against trading away her own people, you do not doubt John will reach his elevated destination.

Amazing Grace
Chuck Cooper, Josh Young,and members of the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus

If there's nothing exactly wrong with this approach, it is overly mechanical, and the songs, even as rendered by the 29-member cast's sterling voices, are undistinguished. There's a mildly forceful paean to freedom in "We Are Determined," sung by a group of dedicated abolitionists, and John's recognition of his growth late in Act II approaches (but stops short of) showstopper status. But the other numbers exist largely as fragments, with orchestrations (by Kenny Seymour) and musical direction and arrangements (by Joseph Church) that are unabashedly exploring the Les Misérables waters, but never finding the urgency or affecting character that might embellish and particularize this score.

The downscale scenic design (by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce), costumes (by Toni-Leslie James), and lights (Ken Billington and Paul Miller) suffer a similar malady: correct for any given show, but not necessarily ideal for this one. Christopher Gattelli's limited choreography and Gabriel Barre's direction are in line with all this, scarcely making a discernible impression, good or bad.

Young remains a magnetic presence onstage, and possesses one of Broadway's most compelling and best-balanced voices, but can't escape the drab choices foisted on him by the book. He injects little doubt, little shading, into his earliest revelations of a Supreme Being, and doesn't articulate the details of his journey with consummate clarity. His stolid John does not give way easily to the passionate feelings beneath his renowned composition, so it seems like a couple of pieces are missing in making this man our ideal avatar for redemption.

Mackey sings with a lush soprano, but puts no convincing spin on her garden-variety ingénue. By contrast, Cooper might overdo the edge on Thomas, making him seem less genuine and more hollowed out than he really should be. Hewitt, Hoch, Foy, Laiona Michelle (as Mary's servant), and Rachael Ferrera (as Nanna's daughter) have still less to do, but ably round out the world on both sides of the central argument.

The real star of the evening, of course, is heralded in the title. From the opening scene, brief musical phrases and isolated notes break away from the larger soundscape around John — when he's lodged in a ship's wreckage, vocalized by the princess's people — and lodge themselves in his subconscious. We recognize them for what they are, of course, but he doesn't yet. As much as the musical is about his coming to God and godliness, it's also about "Amazing Grace" coming to him, constructing itself inside him from the building blocks of his own experience, until there's nothing left for him to do with it but let it explode into the world as his personal declaration of his galvanized beliefs and the faith that brought him to it.

When that occurs, in a full-company sing (in which the audience will, understandably, also want to be involved) at the close of Amazing Grace, the effect is every bit as stirring as you'd expect, the simple, passionate truths of the lyrics reinforcing the yearning for liberty within all of us and pointing us toward the source from which it comes. It's everything the show needs to be, and enough that those in search of nothing more won't leave the theater feeling cheated. But this elevation does not come without a cost: Saving this song of all songs for the very end only emphasizes how thoroughly what precedes it fails to meet the composition's heaven-high standards.


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