Book by Christopher Smith & Arthur Giron
Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith
Directed by Gabriel Barre
AMAZING GRACE has almost all the ingredients it needs to be a topnotch show: high seas adventure, romance, historic content, a humanistic message and a feel-good ending. The one thing it lacks is a strong marriage between music and story. Far too often the insertion of songs into the narrative feels arbitrary rather than essential. The result is something of a mixed bag: It doesn’t quite gel as a musical, but the show’s narrative energy, talented cast and epic production values make it enjoyable evening regardless.
Thomas (Chuck Cooper), narrates the story of his friend and former master John Newton (Josh Young). Itching for adventure, young John goes out to sea. This does not sit well with his stern father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), who has a more staid life in mind for his son. John persists in his pursuits, soon becoming a player in the profitable slave trade. His childhood friend Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), is appalled at the sight of human beings sold like animals, and reaches out to help an escaped slave after activist attack the auction site. Mary senses that something big is happening, and over the protestations of her house slave Nanna (Laiona Michelle), she begins flirting with the burgeoning abolitionist movement. As her antislavery convictions solidify, John’s propensity for drunken rudeness worsens. Rival suitor Major Archibald Grey (Chris Hoch) takes advantage of the rift between John and Mary, and his chances look brighter still when John is waylaid by sailors and forced to serve on a slave ship as an ordinary seaman. Captain Newton refuses to intervene on his son’s behalf, although John is allowed to bring Thomas along as a fellow seaman. Insubordination is not tolerated aboard the ship, and John soon finds out what flogging feels like. In a brilliantly staged sequence, a storm at sea topples the vessel, and Thomas and John are plunged into the depths of the ocean. They survive the wreck, but are held captive in West Africa by Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), a sinister collaborator who callously sells her own people into bondage. After experiencing life as a slave, Newton sees the system through different eyes and seeks to free the very people he once oppressed. Meanwhile, back in Europe, Mary speaks truth to power in an effort to end the slave trade once and for all. Many more obstacles exist, but both Mary and John are emboldened by their newfound convictions and they unite in their struggle to smash the shackles of slavery once and for all.
This gripping (if melodramatic) narrative is given epic visual panache by Gabriel Barre’s bold direction and the lavish achievements of the gifted design and effects teams. All of the performances are solid: Young and Mackey both have clear, impassioned voices, and are adept at capturing the internal conflicts as well as the youthful impulsivity of their characters. Led by the always-stellar Cooper, the supporting cast gives depth and power to the arc of the story. Unfortunately, though, their efforts aren’t consistently matched by the score. There are a few strong entries, such as Thomas’s powerful “Nowhere Left to Run” and an ironic patter song in which the pompous Major Grey extols the virtues of propriety while ruthlessly engineering his next conquest. Most of the ballads, though, feel generic and fail to move the story forward or to tell us much that we don’t already know about the characters. Make no mistake, AMAZING GRACE is worth the price of admission in spite of its flaws, and is certainly recommended for parents looking for something on Broadway that’s appropriate for kids and offers both substance and spectacle. But audiences should go in with the right expectations: you’ll walk out enlightened, but not humming.