BWW Reviews: Bland AMAZING GRACE Blessed With Barre's Terrific Production
If it were possible to leave a theatre humming the direction, Gabriel Barre's exemplary work in Amazing Grace would send audiences off with a melody as sweet and memorable as the beloved hymn that gives the new musical its title.
Teaming with designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes) and Ken Billington and Paul Miller (lights), Barre begins with a jarring visual that sets us up for how effectively the evening will depict England's 18th Century slave trade, frequently filling the stage with upsetting moments that are discomforting without being exploitative.
Add to that Christopher Gattelli's fine work staging elegantly proper European dance and the excitingly intricate choreography of the people of Sierra Leone and you have a wonderfully packaged production performed with spirit by an excellent company.
And then there's the book, music and lyrics.
It's not that Amazing Grace is such a badly written musical; it's just a very bland and predictable one. This is despite the very interesting premise, taken from history, that a song so well associated with the American civil rights movement was written by a slave trader who eventually found redemption.
For his first work of professional writing, composer/lyricist/bookwriter Christopher Smith, collaborating on the book with playwright Arthur Giron, has concocted a soupy melodrama about John Newton (energetically-voiced Josh Young), an aspiring composer more concerned with winning his father's respect by doing well in the family business, slave trading. The talented Tom Hewitt, in his third Broadway musical in a row that requires him to sneer all night, plays the dad.
John's sweetheart, Mary (lovely-sopranoed Erin Mackey), has secretly joined the abolitionist movement, despite owning a slave herself, and when John is suspected of being a sympathizer, he is sent off to indentured servitude on a ship that sinks, washing him onto the Sierra Leone shore, where he now encounters the people who he would have captured and sold.
Washed ashore with him is his black servant called Thomas, who is kept well-dressed and educated in European manners. Chuck Cooper is severely underutilized in the role until midway through the second act, when his powerful singing and fine acting skills are finally put to good use. His big second act scene where he reclaims his given name and culture is played with aching sensitivity.
The musical has nothing to do with the writing of "Amazing Grace" except for a moment where John hears a young African woman humming the melody he will eventually appropriate as his own. An epilogue has the company singing the hymn and the audience is eventually welcomed to sing along. Smith's generic-sounding original score is of the high-belting pop-opera variety, with lyrics that are serviceable at best.
But despite its flaws, Amazing Grace will no doubt satisfy those who care more about being spiritually moved than witnessing sharply written musical theatre. Forgiveness can be powerful.