NEW YORK (AP) — 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. In a twist, the would-be hero is also a resolutely wicked character.
The semi-biographical tale, which opened Thursday night at the Nederlander Theatre, is based on the early adventures of John Newton, a British slave trader who eventually became an abolitionist, pastor and composer of the titular hymn and many others.
In his first musical, Christopher Smith has provided the music and lyrics and co-written the action-packed book with Arthur Giron. Gabriel Barre (“The Wild Party”) directs, and choreography is provided by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”).
A charismatic Josh Young opens the show strongly as youthful libertine John, with a bravura rendition of an exhilarating song called “Truly Alive.” It’s fortunate that Young is so likable, because his character most certainly is not. John unreasonably quarrels with his strong-willed father (a distinguished performance by Tom Hewitt), yet has no qualms about working in his family business of slave trading.
The multi-faceted set easily transforms into a clever facsimile of a clipper ship, as the winds of misfortune plague the seafaring anti-hero through conscription, battles, near-drowning and various betrayals, many of his own doing.
Erin Mackey sings captivatingly, wearing a sweet, saintly air as Mary Catlett, the girl he leaves behind. By some miracle, Mary continues to love inhumane John, formerly a poetic and musical boy. We see a glimpse of his now-missing soul when Mackey, garbed in gorgeously embellished gowns, performs a sweet song, “Voices Of The Angels,” he wrote for his late mother.
After seeing John’s callous treatment of African slaves, Mary bravely begins secretly working with abolitionists, regarded as terrorists in their era. She even spies on a pompous British major (Chris Hoch, merrily highlighting his character’s buffoonery).
Chuck Cooper is quite affecting as John’s ultra-loyal servant, Thomas, while Laiona Michelle provides moral direction as Mary’s Nanna and Rachael Ferrera plays a sprite-like African enslaved by her own people. A cast of other talented performers portray Africans as slaves in England and free people in their own country, although the play’s focus is primarily on white abolitionists and John’s journey toward possible redemption.
Despite a cleverly rendered, dreamlike drowning scene in which Thomas heroically saves John, that’s not the hero’s wake-up call. Instead, he just keeps doubling down on immoral actions, even going into business with a vicious African princess (Harriett D. Foy, quite the villainess in dominatrix mode).
Most ignobly, he banishes Thomas to a dire fate, and the audience almost turns against John for good as Cooper emotionally powers through the heartbroken ballad, “Nowhere Left To Run.”
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.
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