By Christopher Smith (music, lyrics, book)
Neither amazing nor wretched
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
Review by John Olson
The song is revered by its simple statement of hope and salvation. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness can certainly relate to it. Haven’t we all felt lost at times and hope that we are now or soon will be found? The historical record shows the author of the lyrics to that venerable hymn, the Englishman John Newton (1725-1807), to have indeed been a wretch – a slave trader most notably – but he eventually converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest and abolitionist. He later wrote the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” None of this happened as quickly as we’re shown in this musical biography of Newton. There’s no crime in that – true stories are compressed for dramatic purposes all the time – but you do have to end up with a good story. And, a good story needs a good hero – one we can care about, root for. Amidst all the considerable creative talent and money that’s gone into this musical, it fails to give us such a hero.
To see what’s missing, let’s look at the hero of Les Miserables – that megahit poperetta to which the creators of Amazing Grace seem to aspire. That musical’s Jean Valjean has been imprisoned at hard labor for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. After his release, he jeopardizes his freedom by saving a man trapped underneath a heavy cart and then exposes himself to the authorities rather than let an innocent man be prosecuted for his crimes. Valjean is consistently challenged, but on only one occasion (when shortly after his release from prison he steals a priest’s silver), Valjean makes the difficult, but moral choice. In contrast, Amazing Grace’s John Newton is at the outset simply a 19-year-old boy hungry for adventure who works in the slave trade because that’s what his father does. When faced with hard moral choices, he makes the easy, self-serving choices – until very late in this story. What’s to root for in this guy?
Authors Christopher Smith (in his first professional writing gig) and Arthur Giron add characters, subplots and events not actually in the historical record that clutter up the landscape. There’s a whole story about Newton’s childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett (who Newton later married), becoming an abolitionist at a very young age, and resisting the advances of an evil military officer, Major Gray. Newton’s father, John Senior, is given a heroic death scene. Mary and John have devoted slaves who were surrogate parents (with Newton betraying his slave, Thomas). All of this serves only to complicate the plot into a hard-to-follow mess, wasting stage time the writers might have used to give the audience reasons to empathize with Newton. The book doesn’t even make much of Newton’s religious conversion – surprisingly, given the subject matter and title of the musical. When he does claim to convert to Christianity and become an abolitionist (both of which happened much later than is shown here), there’s no catharsis. Further, the writers and director Gabriel Barre have trouble with tone, inserting comic relief at the wrong times and letting contemporary colloquialisms like “It is was it is” and “that went well” (when something obviously did not go well) into the dialogue.
What there is in Amazing Grace, though, is lots of talent in the cast and design team. Barre has put together a great looking and great sounding package if you don’t try to think too much about what it all means. Smith’s songs, though predictably heavy on power ballads and not particularly distinctive, provide a showcase for some pretty amazing voices, starting with Josh Young as Newton. Chuck Cooper, as slave Thomas, brings down the house with his big number. Same with Laiona Michelle as Mary’s nanny slave Nanna. Harriett D. Foy is the deliciously evil African Princess Peyai, who captures and sells her own people into slavery. Erin Mackey sounds great as Mary Catlett, and the always impressive (even with bad material) Tom Hewitt does well with his big song. (Even so, after his involvement in the unfortunate White Noise, which also was a Broadway hopeful trying out in Chicago, he should stay away from race-themed musicals forevermore). Acting-wise, the cast does what they can with the ponderous dialogue and its inconsistent attempts to sound 18th-Century, and to do all that with British accents. Chris Hoch, as Major Gray, has apparently not been given clear direction as to whether his character is a clown or a villain and sadly, he’s never very funny nor very threatening.
If being wooden isn’t a good thing for the acting, it’s just fine for the sets by Broadway wizard Eugene Lee, working here with Edward Pierce. They’ve created a wooden sailing ship scheme complete with masts and rigging that sets the stage just fine. Along with the lighting design by Ken Billington and Paul Miller, we get some convincing storms at sea and a very cool effect showing an underwater rescue. Smith’s generic score is given the benefit of some moving incidental music by his music director Joseph Church and it’s all very richly orchestrated by Kenny Seymour. There’s not a great dealing of dancing in the show, but Christopher Gattelli creates a fun and showy African dance to open Act II, even if it is, oddly, performed in front of a tethered and shirtless Josh Young as if the captured John Newton is being forced to watch it.
The producers of Amazing Grace have hired some of the best in the business and these actors and designers give us their “A” game.Net net, though, a musical’s gotta have music you want to hear again and again, and a character or two you pull for. Otherwise, you have a show like this – which is not wretched, but neither is it amazing.
Amazing Grace continues through November 2nd at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map). Tickets are $33-$100, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at AmazingGraceMusical.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Josh Young (John Newton), Chuck Cooper (Thomas), Savannah Frazier (Sophie, ensemble), Erin Mackey (Mary Catlett), Elizabeth Ward Land (Mrs. Catlett, ensemble), Tom Hewitt (Captain Newton), Stanley Bahorek (Robert Haweis), Laiona Michelle (Nanna), Toni Elizabeth White (Tennah, ensemble), Chris Hoch (Major Archibald Gray), Rachael Ferrera (Yema, ensemble), Allen Kendall (Mr. Whitley, ensemble), Michael Dean Morgan (Rabbi Einhorm, Prince Frederick, ensemble), Mike Evariste (Tyler, ensemble), Vince Oddo (Quigley, ensemble). Gavriel Savit (Briggs, ensemble), Christopher Gurr (Billingsley, M. Clow, ensemble), Harriett D. Foy (Princess Peyai), Marija Juliette Abney, Erica Aubrey, Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Sean Ewing, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Dan Sharkey, Bret Shuford, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Hollie E. Wright (ensemble).
behind the scenes
Gabriel Barre (director), Christopher Gattelli (choreographer), Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce (scenic design), Ken Billington and Paul Miller (lighting design), Jon Weston (sound design), Toni Leslie-James (costume design),Robert Charles-Vallance (hair design), Kenny Seymour (orchestrations), Joseph Church (music direction, incidental music, arrangements, conductor), David Leong (fight and military movement), Michael Keller (music coordinator), Kim Weild (associate director), Shanna Vanderwerker (associate choreographer), Paul J. Smith (production stage manager), Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach), Joan Marcus (photos)