Review: ‘Amazing Grace,’ the Story of a Slave Trader’s Moral Awakening

17 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Amazing Grace’: Theater Review.

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.With its clean-cut heroes and villains and its earnest Christianity, the musical “Amazing Grace” is an outlier on Broadway — where the new normal is the bold, hip-hop-flavored “Hamilton.” As “Grace” tells us, the lyrics of what would become the anthem of the civil-rights movement were written by an 18th-century Englishman who traded slaves before finding God.NEW YORK — The message of “Amazing Grace” — that the most despicable, slave-owning wretch can see the light and the errors of past ways and become a force for reconciliation — is an aspiration devoutly to be wished for, given the deep-seated racial divisions in the union, rolling back to the era of slavery, America’s original sin. The refreshing new show “Amazing Grace” admirably covers slavery, abolition, sedition and spiritual themes in 1740s England and Africa, complete with spirited acting and inspirational ballads and anthems.

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. A bratty young man, John Newton (Josh Young) engages in human trafficking to prove himself to his father, Captain Newton (the towering Tom Hewitt, excellent as always).

Shipwrecked in the middle of a roiling ocean in the 1740s, Englishman John Newton, who’s known for writing lyrics to the hymn that gives the musical its title, goes overboard. Even the president of the United States felt the redemptive power of the hymn when he sung reformed slave trader John Newton’s words at the end of his eulogy for his murdered friend, the Rev. 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.

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. Pinckney, a victim of last month’s gruesome killings in a South Carolina church, by singing the song, a last-minute inspiration that made for an affecting viral media moment after a year (and more) of disturbing racial violence. The hymn “Amazing Grace” has a remarkable and singular place in history, a legacy, alas, unlikely to be enjoyed by the earnest but insufficiently sophisticated new musical that shares its title, from the hitherto unknown composer Christopher Smith, that opened here Thursday night. 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.

In Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron’s book, John has no moral compass until he embraces God, renounces his wicked ways and writes “Amazing Grace” — though in reality Newton continued to trade slaves after his awakening and wrote the hymn decades later. 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. A charismatic Josh Young opens the show strongly as youthful libertine John, with a bravura rendition of an exhilarating song called “Truly Alive.” It’s fortunate that Young is so likable, because his character most certainly is not.

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”). Spiritual notions of forgiveness and redemption are at the heart of most musicals, even those that hide their faith-based souls under layers of irony. 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. John unreasonably quarrels with his strong-willed father (a distinguished performance by Tom Hewitt), yet has no qualms about working in his family business of slave trading. 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.

This is par for the course in Gabriel Barre’s production, which is handsome — Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s set cleverly integrates a ship’s sails and rigging — but doesn’t fully commit to either the story’s gray areas or the full extent of its horrors. And in the deeply emotional performance from Chuck Cooper, who plays Newton’s personal slave and surrogate father in this new musical, there is profound longing, pain and hope for the future. The peculiar story of Newton’s life forms the spine of the musical, which traces the gradual moral awakening that led to his conversion from a trafficker in human flesh to a deeply religious writer of hymns.

The multi-faceted set easily transforms into a clever facsimile of a clipper ship, as the winds of misfortune plague the seafaring anti-hero through conscription, battles, near-drowning and various betrayals, many of his own doing. Unfortunately, while aspects of Newton’s tale are indeed noteworthy, maybe even amazing, the musical itself unfolds as an overstuffed history lesson trimmed in melodrama, with a standard-issue romantic subplot and some dutiful attempts to explore the lives of the slaves (although the focus remains squarely and maybe a little uncomfortably on the British characters).

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. Much good work has been done on “Amazing Grace,” which now offers the African-American characters more ownership of the story (Cooper’s Thomas is now the narrator) and reduces some of the more frivolous romantic and comedic antics of the various 18th-century Britons oscillating around the Royal African Co., loyal supplier of gold to the mint and slaves to the British empire. 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. We see a glimpse of his now-missing soul when Mackey, garbed in gorgeously embellished gowns, performs a sweet song, “Voices Of The Angels,” he wrote for his late mother. 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.

The African-American members of this cast have tough assignments here; in one early scene, we watch a crate of soon-to-be-branded slaves arrive at the dock, and, laudably, the show now is far more willing to portray the barbarism of that heinous institution than was the case in Chicago. After seeing John’s callous treatment of African slaves, Mary bravely begins secretly working with abolitionists, regarded as terrorists in their era. 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.

Chuck Cooper is quite affecting as John’s ultra-loyal servant, Thomas, while Laiona Michelle provides moral direction as Mary’s Nanna and Rachael Ferrera plays a sprite-like African enslaved by her own people. When Cooper delivers his moving signature solo, “Nowhere Left to Run,” everyone in the 1,162-seat Nederlander house stops breathing and leans forward.

A cast of other talented performers portray Africans as slaves in England and free people in their own country, although the play’s focus is primarily on white abolitionists and John’s journey toward possible redemption. 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. Giron’s book, while generally written in passable fake-Jane Austen English, does slip in the occasional anachronism.) Mary’s disappointment in John also stems from his abandonment of his musical studies; once a prodigy who was composing music in his boyhood (she sings a bit of his ersatz Handel at a ball), he now swills gin and generally acts the boorish rebel. 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.

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. Overall, the show has far too little of what Newton did after his life changed — how he became a prolific writer of spiritual music, how he forged the beloved hymn on the marquee. His waywardness is put down by Mary as being caused by the early death of his dear mother. “Amazing Grace” isn’t particularly subtle when it comes to psychology, or, for that matter, exposition. 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.

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. Its characters often speak in talking points, as when Mary asks rhetorically, “Aren’t we accountable if we could help others, but choose not to?” When she meets up with an abolitionist leader, he lectures: “Before we go any further, you should know that we are not just a society for the improvement of slave conditions. 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. 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?

By then we’ve been on quite a journey with these characters, and the hymn resonates with relevance and hope, both for their personal stories and the still-uneasy state of racial relations today. John is taken away in chains — while his father looks on indifferently, now apparently hoping a few years at sea will help him man up — and later whipped for insubordination. 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 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.

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? There simply is no time left to grapple with what is meant by conversion, and certainly no interest in probing the distinct possibility that Newton’s new self was, in part, an expedient choice. A Carolyn Rossi Copeland, Alexander Rankin, and AG Funding presentation of a Goodspeed Musicals production of a musical with book by Christopher Smith & Arthur Giron, and music & lyrics by Smith. Newton did not write the music that now usually accompanies the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” Alas, the force of that deeply stirring melody serves as a reminder of the music’s shortcomings.

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. He and Thomas, the loyal servant (read: slave) who accompanied him aboard (portrayed with unshowy dignity by Chuck Cooper), find themselves under the control of the African Princess Peyai (Harriett D.

Sets, Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Ken Billington & Paul Miller; sound, Jon Weston; hair & wigs, Robert-Charles Vallance; fight & military movement; orchestrations, Kenny Seymour; music direction, arrangements & incidental music, Joseph Church; production stage manager, Paul J. The same issue haunts the book, an overly linear piece of storytelling never better than serviceable that lacks nuance and ambiguity, even as the production it accompanies lacks a truly vibrant theatrical metaphor. Smith apportions a solo (or two) to each of the major characters, but most of them are baldly self-revealing anthems or ballads deep-dyed in clichés. “Can I ever return to the bridges I have burned?” sings a remorseful Captain Newton after learning that, despite news to the contrary, John is alive and well and now working for the princess in Sierra Leone. “Where will you go when there’s nowhere left to run?” Thomas sings to John, trying to awaken him to the evil he has done. 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. 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.

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. Mackey’s pure, radiant soprano delights the ear, and she infuses Mary with a touching sincerity that helps make convincing the rather unnatural moral perfection of her character. 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.

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. John’s conversion from slave trader to God-fearing abolitionist takes place whiplash-fast, and soon he’s joining Mary in eloquent speeches about the evils of slavery: “The conscience of humanity must someday awaken.

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