John Newton is not your average protagonist for a musical. The British sailor worked for many years in the slave trade, and it was only after a tumultuous storm at sea did he begin to question his actions and eventually join the Abolitionist movement and embrace a life of evangelical Christianity. The creative team of Amazing Grace, the Broadway musical that opened at the Nederlander Theatre last week, writes in the program notes that they “created some characters and amalgamated some events in the timeline to focus on t the themes that drew us to this amazing story of one man’s moral and spiritual transformation and the impact he had on our world.” Changes or not, the production has sweeping and emotionally resonant themes that never seem to find cohesion in the book, (Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron), music and lyrics (Christopher Smith). Nor is director Gabriel Barre (making is Broadway directorial debut) able to harness spotty performances from his leading players.
As John Newton, Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar) must deal with the impossible task of making a spoiled, demanding, alcoholic slave trader likable. A longtime friendship and teetering romance with Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) softens his persona a bit, but their lack of chemistry and believability—so desperately needed to humanize the show beyond its broad strokes, never sparks. The supporting cast fares far better, with Tom Hewitt portraying Newton’s father, Captain Newton, and Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper delivering an occasionally over-dramatic but emotionally seething performance as Newton’s servant. Other standouts include Laiona Michelle as Mary’s slave, Nanna, and Harriett D. Foy as Princess Peyai, who Newton encounters on Sierra Leone after a shipwreck off the coast of Africa.
Awkward staging permeates the production, ranging from stop-time choreography during a slave auction at the beginning of the show to Newton’s entrance through the audience during the show’s final moments. But beyond the actors’ traffic patterns, the show’s marketing strategy, which touts “a new original musical based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world’s most beloved song,” leaves one cold. There are but a few strains of “Amazing Grace” that appear in the score during Newton’s trials and tribulations in Africa, and his transformation from slave trader to evangelical abolitionist is crammed into the show’s last ten minutes. The production design masks some of Amazing Grace’s shortcomings, particularly the lush costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Unfortunately, no cover-up can help poor British dialects (save Tom Hewitt) that also contribute to an impenetrable suspension of disbelief.
That being said, when the company finally sings the title song, which begins a cappella, chills ripple throughout the audience. By its conclusion, the entire theatre—patrons included—is singing in unison. Amazing Grace’s message of redemption and change is a beautiful one. Unfortunately, its delivery feels less than inspired.
208 West 41st Street, NYC
Open ended run.
Here’s what other reviewers have to say…
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). Charles Isherwood, New York Times
Amazing Grace may be based on historical persons and events, but in this case, truth is more compelling than fiction. Newton did have a religious awakening in 1748 but only left the slave trade in 1754, after a debilitating stroke. He didn’t get around to publicly condemning slavery until decades later. Such complexities are, not surprisingly, thrown overboard in favor of cheap piety and sentimental expediency.” David Cote, Time Out New York
…The swashbuckling, nautical, coming-of-age yarn (the straight-up direction is by Gabriel Barre, with limited choreography by Christopher Gattelli) that occupies the bulk of the stage time mostly involves the rebellious young Newton sparring with his controlling father (played by Tom Hewitt) as the prodigal son voyages from Chatham, England, to the west coast of Africa. It remains an uneasy way for a musical to explore the final years of slavery in the United Kingdom, prior to its abolition in 1833.” Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog‘s editor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @roodeloo.