Review Roundup: AMAZING GRACE Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
Broadway's new musical Amazing Grace officially opens tonight, July 16, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street).
The cast features Tony Award nominee Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, Tom Hewitt, Chris Hoch, Stanley Bahorek, Harriett D. Foy, Laiona Michelle, Rachael Ferrera and Elizabeth Ward Land.
The new musical features music and lyrics by Christopher Smith and a book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, directed by Gabriel Barre (Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party) and choreographed by Tony Award winner Christopher Gattelli (Newsies).
Amazing Grace is a new original musical based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world's most beloved song. A captivating tale of romance, rebellion and redemption, this radiant production follows one man whose incredible journey ignited a historic wave of change.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: 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)...Smith's score is pleasant and serviceable..."Amazing Grace" isn't particularly subtle when it comes to psychology, or, for that matter, exposition...Nor does the plot avoid some faintly preposterous excesses...r. Hewitt and Mr. Cooper, both stalwart musical theater veterans, give forceful renderings of their minimally drawn characters. Ms. Mackey's pure, radiant soprano delights the ear...Mr. Young's tenor matches Ms. Mackey's in its bright, limpid richness - although I couldn't help but imagine that if a Ken doll could sing, its timbre would be similar...The song is simple, beautiful, immortal; the musical, not so much.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: More time on that period and less on swashbuckling would have added welcome nuance. This is par for the course in Gabriel Barre's production, which is handsome...but doesn't fully commit to either the story's gray areas or the full extent of its horrors...Smith's score seems to aim for "Les Miz"-like grandeur, but falls short, despite some agreeable tunes...However awkward or heavy-handed the proceedings are up till then, "Amazing Grace" doesn't fail to draw tears.
David Cote, Time Out New York: Sadly, a complete showbiz neophyte decided to turn it into a Les Miz-style melodrama, and the crude result has been buffed to a high sheen by a talented cast and crew with $16 million at their disposal. If only some of that filthy lucre had gone to script doctors and ghostwriters instead...As Newton, Josh Young has a sterling, ringing tenor, but his character is annoyingly passive and shrill. The majestic Chuck Cooper brings every ounce of humor and dignity to bear on his invented role, the servant Thomas, steering it a hairsbreadth away from Magical Negro territory. Amazing Grace may be based on historical persons and events, but but in this case, truth is more compelling than fiction...Personally, I expect poetic license in the theater, but I expect it to serve a strong artistic or political vision. Amazing Grace has neither.
Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Under Gabriel Barre's direction, "Amazing Grace" feels like a long adult-ed lecture or a night at "Parsifal"...Smith ends his musical with a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace," but the rest of the score utterly lacks Newton's simplicity and instead treads heavily in the current Broadway vogue for bombastic anthems coupled with a strong percussive element that's meant to send audiences to their feet applauding...In their final exchange, Mary asks Newton why "it took you so long" to give up his slave-trader ways. Theatergoers will be asking that question much earlier.
Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press: A serious musical with epic themes doesn't come to Broadway that often. The refreshing new show "Amazing Grace" admirably covers slavery, abolition, sedition and spiritual themes in 1740s England and Africa, complete with spirited acting and inspirational ballads and anthems...A charismatic Josh Young opens the show strongly...Erin Mackey sings captivatingly, wearing a sweet, saintly air as Mary Catlett...It's a long time coming, but the title song is performed in the beautiful and emotional finale. By then we've been on quite a journey with these characters, and the hymn resonates with relevance and hope, both for their personal stories and the still-uneasy state of racial relations today."
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: There's an audience out there for "Amazing Grace," flawed as it is, but they may not get to see this religious-uplift musical if the $16 million show's marketing machine doesn't reach its target audience. Christian congregations and other faith-based groups should respond to this epic-scaled saga of how John Newton, an 18th-century British slave trader played byJosh Young, experienced a "miraculous" religious conversion, became an Anglican minister, and went on to write 200 church hymns, including the stirring title piece. But ye of little faith will find it tough sledding.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: in the deeply emotional performance from Chuck Cooper, who plays Newton's personal slave and surrogate father in this new musical, there is profound longing, pain and hope for the future...Very little of that was evident in the show's Chicago tryout last fall. Much good work has been done on "Amazing Grace"..."Amazing Grace" wants to tell the story of a conversion...But it feels rushed and unsatisfying, although not as sudden as the appearance of the title song at the conclusion of the night, even though we are hungry for more exploration of its genesis and legacy...he book, an overly linear piece of storytelling never better than serviceable that lacks nuance and ambiguity, even as the production it accompanies lacks a truly vibrant theatrical metaphor.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: this earnest but plodding musical by Broadway newcomers needs lifelines of its own...The jumbled book, a joint effort by Smith and playwright Arthur Giron, is another issue. The creators have good instincts about a story worth telling. But their reach exceeds their grasp. Songs by Christopher Smith are serviceable but lack significance and surprise. You can hear the boilerplate lyrics coming a mile away. Even the potential power ballads don't have the structure to make an impact...the production self-sabotages with mood shifts..."Amazing Grace" has come to Broadway. But it still hasn't found its way.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: There's no questioning the sincerity of Amazing Grace... Heartfelt sentiments relating to the nation's shameful history of slavery and racism no doubt contribute to get audience members standing at the conclusion of this musical, as the full ensemble's voices unite in an uplifting rendition of the title song. But that emotional release is a long time coming in a 2½-hour show in which the stories of the secondary black characters are invariably more involving than those of the blandly drawn, white central figures...Young and Mackey both give committed performances, but their singing has no emotional range - he's all one-note intensity while her light soprano is pretty and period-appropriate but short on passion - and their romance is the stuff of trite melodrama...The most affecting moments come from Cooper's Thomas and Michelle's Nanna, both of them figures of great dignity and contained sorrow; and oddly enough, from Hewitt's Captain Newton...
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Surefire stories don't write themselves. That's the take-away from Amazing Grace, the epically bad show that opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre...If you're going to make a musical about one of the best-known and most-loved songs of all time, you'd better be equal to the task. That, fundamentally, is not the case with the this earnest but cringe-inducing freshman effort by composer-lyricist Christopher Smith...All the principal actors, and particularly Mackey and Cooper, have gorgeous voices...The closing scene is as powerful as it is predictable, as the hymn builds to its climax, sung by the entire company (and many in the audience). Everything that has come before is instantly forgotten.
Linda Winer, Newsday: ...is it possible today to tell another slave history through the eyes of a white man and the noble woman who believes in him? So much effort, sincerity and talent -- not to mention cash -- have been funneled into "Amazing Grace" that it would be nice to be able to answer yes to any of that...The production has been confidently directed by Gabriel Barre, with a first-class creative team and a large, excellent cast -- most impressively, Chuck Cooper and Laiona Michelle in supporting roles as the families' favorite slaves.
Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal: New musicals that open in the summer tend to be ill-fated, and "Amazing Grace," which purports to tell the "awe-inspiring true story" (so says the news release, anyway) of John Newton (Josh Young), the British slave trader turned abolitionist who wrote the words to the 1779 hymn, is unlikely to break that rule...On the credit side, the cast is superb-especially Chuck Cooper as Newton's twice-enslaved manservant-and Gabriel Barre's sumptuous staging not infrequently creates the illusion that there's more to "Amazing Grace" than meets the ear...Whatever its weaknesses, this is one of the best-looking musicals to reach New York in recent seasons.
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: More to the point, "Amazing Grace" focuses on Newton as a bratty young man in the 1740s, when he was truly the self-proclaimed "wretch" of that hymn's first stanza. The spiritual -- recently sung by the president at a eulogy for the Charleston shooting victims -- isn't heard until the musical's final moments. Writer Smith (sharing book credit with Arthur Giron) piles on a lot to explain why John is a rebellious man: His mother died when he was young ... His love interest, Mary (the appealing Erin Mackey, of "Chaplin"), comes from a broken family that wants to marry her off to a pompous British major (Chris Hoch)...Because most of the relationships are musical theater tropes, they tend to drag on the pacing. The tone of scenes in the first act oscillates wildly, from striking and severe -- particularly the difficult images of chained slaves being branded -- to overly smug and smirky (Hoch is fun, though he seems to be channeling King George from "Hamilton"). The songs are confident, if not quite memorable -- the best being "Truly Alive," early on.
Matt Windman, amNY: On the heels of President Barack Obama breaking into "Amazing Grace" during a eulogy, a well-meant but embarrassingly uninteresting musical depicting the life saga of the hymn' writer has opened. Watching it, you keep thinking, "How in the world did this get to Broadway?"...Resembling an old-fashioned adventure novel, "Amazing Grace" is packed with changes of fortune, sentimentality and one-dimensional characters. Smith's mushy, forgettable songs sound like the work of someone who loves "Les Miz" but has little talent of his own...Too bad they couldn't just sing "Amazing Grace" at the start and save everyone 2 1/2 hours.
Steven Suskin, Huffington Post: Amazing Grace earns a place right alongside the Aimee Semple McPherson musical, Scandalous, and the Shroud of Turin musical, Into the Light; not because of the faith-based subject matter, but due to the overall effect. There is nothing wrong with bringing to Broadway a new musical written by a newcomer; both The Music Man and 1776 came from first-timers, although both were professional musicians with pop song hits to their credit (and both had composed incidental music for Broadway plays). In this case, the program bio of Christopher Smith--"the concept creator, composer, lyricist and co-author of the book"--proudly states that this is his "first work of professional writing." While there is indeed a lightning strike on the stage of Nederlander, it comes courtesy of the electrician.
Joshua John Mackin, Washington Post: With a feel-good ending, you might call "Amazing Grace" a triumphalist view on advancement in persons and politics. Culture is a bolt that ratchets in only one direction in the play: toward greater freedom and compassion. But the musical is not just soothing and includes clear depictions of the horrors of slavery. The show opens with the audience immediately implicated as eager auctioneers at a brutal slave auction. There are several on-stage whippings of black characters by white characters. And the destruction slavery caused to black families is highlighted multiple times.
David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer: Most of the show's gravitas is generated by its African American cast members - Chuck Cooper as Newton's betrayed slave Thomas, Laiona Michelle as Mary's servant, and Harriett D. Foy as the imperious African princess who profits from the slave trade. If this show finds its way into the hit zone, they'll be among the primary reasons.
Jesse Green, Vulture: Amazing Grace, a new musical purporting to tell the story of the 18th-century British abolitionist John Newton, is the "first work of professional writing" by Christopher Smith, a 45-year-old former police officer from suburban Philadelphia. (He wrote the music and lyrics himself and co-wrote the book with the more experienced playwright Arthur Giron.) What he has somehow gotten produced, and offered with good intentions to Broadway audiences and critics, is the equivalent of a child's drawing: naïve, sincere, glowing with an unimpeachable if hard-to-pin-down vision of what it wants to be. (I'd guess that it wants to be a Christian family entertainment with a bold message about the power of redemption.) It is also a confusing cartoon so lacking in craft that it ruins any chance of being taken seriously. Certainly it can't be recommended as history; it's riddled with falsehoods that alone would sink it. But it also fails as musical theater, on two counts: the music and the theater.
Elysa Gardner, USA Today: Sneer if you must, but it could be argued that in 2015, on Broadway, it's more irreverent to promote such beliefs than it is to satirize their practice. The much-celebrated Hand to God uses a demonic sock puppet to send up rigid distinctions between good and evil in a Christian community. And at last check, The Book of Mormon wasn't having any trouble selling tickets. If Grace has the courage of its convictions, it shows less daring, and little invention, as a creative work. With its mostly generic, sometimes bombastic score and stilted dialogue, this account of the pre-American Revolution U.K. can recall some of the more hot-air-filled musicals that invaded us from abroad (and some homegrown ones) in the '80s and '90s.