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updated: 10/21/2014 10:22 AM

Narrative missteps mar beautifully sung 'Amazing Grace'

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  • On the road to redemption, John Newton (Josh Young, kneeling) asks forgiveness from Thomas (Chuck Cooper) in the musical "Amazing Grace" by Christopher Smith, in its world premiere at the Bank of America Theatre.

    On the road to redemption, John Newton (Josh Young, kneeling) asks forgiveness from Thomas (Chuck Cooper) in the musical "Amazing Grace" by Christopher Smith, in its world premiere at the Bank of America Theatre.
    courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Josh Young plays John Newton, the 18th century slave trader turned abolitionist who composed the hymn "Amazing Grace," in the world premiere musical of the same name. It plays the Bank of America Theatre through Nov. 2.

    Josh Young plays John Newton, the 18th century slave trader turned abolitionist who composed the hymn "Amazing Grace," in the world premiere musical of the same name. It plays the Bank of America Theatre through Nov. 2.
    courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Among the highlights of Broadway in Chicago's world premiere of the musical "Amazing Grace" are Toni-Leslie James' gorgeous period costumes.

    Among the highlights of Broadway in Chicago's world premiere of the musical "Amazing Grace" are Toni-Leslie James' gorgeous period costumes.
    courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Friendship between John Newton (Josh Young) and Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) blossoms into romance in the new musical "Amazing Grace," running through Nov. 2 at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago.

    Friendship between John Newton (Josh Young) and Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) blossoms into romance in the new musical "Amazing Grace," running through Nov. 2 at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago.
    courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Video: "Amazing Grace" montage

 
 

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.

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.

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