The enthusiastic response from Bank of America Theatre's audience for the world premiere of "Amazing Grace" suggests this luxurious, gorgeously sung musical about redemption, reconciliation and moral reawakening has made more than a few converts during its Chicago tryout.
Whether that propels this ambitious bio-musical about John Newton -- an 18th century English slave merchant turned abolitionist who penned the titular hymn -- to Broadway's promised land remains to be seen. With no New York opening scheduled, nothing in "Amazing Grace's" future is preordained.
"Amazing Grace"★ ★ ½
Location: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 2
Parking: Paid lots nearby
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Rating: For teens and older, some violent scenes may upset sensitive audience members
Earning praise for its grand sound (the ensemble sings beautifully, especially leads Josh Young and Erin Mackey) and good looks (Toni-Leslie James' period costumes are stunning), the lovingly crafted if overstuffed "Amazing Grace" suffers from narrative glitches (involving fine-tuning and motivation that would make us care about these characters) along with some curious choices in set design and staging.
Seven years in the making, it marks the professional debut of Pennsylvania police officer turned composer/lyricist Christopher Smith, who co-authored the book with playwright Arthur Giron. The anthemic, ballad-heavy score (conducted by music director Joseph Church) starts off promisingly with "Truly Alive," an urgent expression of youthful independence. Also impressive is the rousing, abolitionist anthem "We Are Determined" and the haunting "Nowhere Left to Run" exquisitely sung by Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper. (In a missed opportunity, the titular hymn comes as a coda.)
Cooper's sonorous voice and his impassioned performance as a loyal slave cruelly betrayed and Laiona Michelle's wrenching performance as the slave Nanna lend emotional weight to a rather melodramatic show. But even they can't redeem a key flaw of "Amazing Grace" -- not allowing the enslaved to tell the story of their oppression and instead filtering it through Caucasian characters.
It's another missed opportunity. But in fairness, this show isn't about slavery's impact on its victims, but about one man's awakening to its evils. That man is John Newton (Young), a rebellious young man, eager to distance himself from his naval officer father (an imperious Tom Hewitt) in all things but the sale of humans.
Their conflict is among several narrative threads, among them Newton's loss of faith and his relationship with budding love interest Mary Catlett. Nicely acted and prettily sung by the winsome Mackey, Mary joins the abolitionists after witnessing a brutal slave auction (grippingly staged by director Gabriel Barre). Her activism angers another suitor, Chris Hoch's arrogant Major Gray, a royalist determined to quash the movement.
Lastly, the musical addresses John's religious conversion, which follows a series of ordeals including beatings, storms and his own enslavement after a shipwreck strands him in Sierra Leone and he becomes the property of the despotic Princess Peyai, played by the charismatic Harriet D. Foy.
Barre's production has energy to spare. He creates interesting visuals, including an arresting underwater scene, and his staging of Thomas and Newton's confrontation is notable for its simplicity. But his freezes during a slave revolt serve no real purpose.