Book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Music Direction by Joesph Church
At the Palace Theatre, Chicago
Book problems haunt bio/musical of John Newton composer of Amazing Grace
In a world premiere pre-Broadway production, Amazing Grace has some merit as an historical bio-musical. As far as it goes, Amazing Grace chronicles the early adventures of John Newton (1725 – 1807) who composed the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” in 1772. This world premiere pre-Broadway production is a massive epic musical complete with a clipper ship set and a quasi-operatic score filled with stirring anthems and power ballads. There are some interesting effects, such as the depiction of Newton and his slave almost drowning after a ship wreck. The musical has a splendid look with 18th Centory costumes and a cast of white Englishman and African-Americans playing slaves and African tribes.
Josh Young play John Newton as a charismatic, full-throated fellow who speaks in an emphatic melodramatic style but sings powerfully in a rich tenor voice. Young’s Newton is one who we are suppose to like but his involvement as a slave trader even after he was pressed (against his will) into the naval service by the Royal Navy and later bound into slavery by African Princess Peyai (a dominatrix turn by Harriett D. Foy) renders him a despicable amoral person with little regard for Black slaves. How can we empathize with a man who fails to realize that doing slave trading is immoral?
As Newton’s adventures continue, we also see how his soul mate Mary Catlett ( the thin-voiced Erin Mackey) becomes a closet abolitionist in English society, leaving the impression that women were entirely ignorant of slavery’s predations until they instantly joined the campaign for abolition. She and every other religious believer in the show are vehemently anti-slavery, while only the nihilistic secularists engage in the trade. The British Major Gray is the evil officer who investigates and harasses the abolitionists. He covets Mary. The leading English abolitionist William Wilberforce is never mentioned.
This musical wants us to care about the romance between Newton and Catlett and yet much of the show demonstrates Newton’s immoral treatment of slaves including the unconscionable sending of his loyal and beloved manservant Thomas (the terrific Chuck Cooper) back into slavery. How are we to like this guy?
The tone of much of Amazing Grace plays slavery as a side issue with emphasis on John Newton’s adventures implying that the white Englishman’s story is more important than slavery. Also, I question Newton’s epiphany. As he survives a ship wreck, suddenly he realizes that slavery is wrong and now his conscious dictates that he find and buy back Thomas and now work for the end to slavery. I just don’t buy that since more than three-quarters of the show demonstrate Newton’s amoral attitude toward slavery and then in one scene he finds compassion.
I wonder why Amazing Grace spent so much of its stage time on Newton’s early life and never goes into him becoming an an Anglican priest and his ambitious writing of hymns as well as dedicated abolitionist work? The show ends with a stirring rendition of the song “Amazing Grace” that seemed to be an after thought. Of course, that was the only memorable song in the show.
Amazing Grace needs to be re-thought giving evidence as to Newton’s journey toward redemption with more about his later years and less about his early life. The Treasure Island style adventure needs to be squelched. As it now plays, there are some impressive moments and wonderful staging with terrific performances by Josh Young and Chuck Cooper but slavery and the thought of the slaves are not given enough stage time. We need to see more of how and why Newton’s epiphany occurred to believe it.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: October 19, 2014
For more info checkout the Amazing Grace page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL, call 800-775-2000, www.broadwayinchicago.com, tickets $33 -4100,running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission, through Nov. 2, 2014