Thursday, July 16, 2015

Broadway Theater Review: Amazing Grace

CLOSING OCT. 25



Your god can do his worst
Kill me if he can
I curse in his face
And i spit on your plan
I will not be subject to god or to man
I am my own master
You all can be damned.

-- words sung by John Newton before he is changed by amazing Grace

Spirit of Slaves and a Soul Enslaved Combine to Sing a Song of Redemption
By Lauren Yarger
The dark, ugly chains that choke out the hope and life of Africans forced into labor in 18th-Century America also twist and tighten around the hardened heart of slave owner John Newton until God’s Amazing Grace breaks them forever in the new musical based on the life of the writer of the world’s most widely known hymn.

The story about the power of love and faith has audience members on their feet at the end, joining in a chorus of “Amazing Grace.” If that’s not enough to make a believer out of you, the story of how this show made it to the Great White Way is nothing short of miraculous itself.

Broadway is not known for presenting too many Christian-based musicals and this particular show began its course toward Broadway in 1997, the inspiration of composer Christopher Smith – a policeman who had no idea how to write a musical and who taught himself how to play music by watching guitar videos. Talk about miracles! But Smith felt called to bring Newton’s story to the stage.

The show received a number of readings, the first of which brought a standing-room-only crowd to Smith’s church in a small Pennsylvania town. Eventually, Producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland, who ran the faith-based Lamb’s Theater in Times Square years ago, signed on and the show received a developmental production at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut in 2012 followed by a pre-Broadway trial in Chicago last year.

Reviews in the Windy City were pretty mixed. New York critics, reluctant to see shows with Christian-based messages, could blow the show off its moorings where it has docked at the intimate Nederlander Theatre. (Some critics expressed a lack of desire to see the show and one wrote a column about how he wasn’t going to like the show before it ever opened).  I think a prejudice against it because of its religious nature would be unfair, however. The script isn’t preachy, yet faith has a role. This is, after all, the story of the writer of “Amazing Grace.”

How the show, which opened tonight, will stand on its merits alone will be another story. I found it to be engrossing, inspiring and bursting with excellent performances and heavenly staging (the masts and sails of the slave ships never quite leave the backdrop...).

The compelling story of white dominance and oppression of blacks is made more relevant by recent headlines about racial tension in the nation. It’s a little hard to sit comfortably when revisiting this part of our nation’s history, And maybe that is a good thing. 

The book, co-written by Smith and Arthur Giron (founder of New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre), gives a broad view of the subject from different perspectives. This isn’t a story about one white guy who sees the light. Amazing Grace – just like the gift from God itself – is as much Mary’s story or the slaves’ to tell. The combination creates a number of likable characters for whom we root and from whom we learn how change is possible.

John Newton (a dreamy-voiced Josh Young) is a rash young man, running away to sea for adventure against the wishes of his stern father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), owner of the Royal Africa Company, a successful slave-trading empire. Years later, when he returns, Chatham, England has changed, his old school chum, Robert Haweis (Stanley Bahorek) tries to tell him. Sentiment is turning against the practice of slavery and when John takes over a slave auction to try to impress his father, a rebellion breaks out.

Helping a young pregnant African woman escape is John’s old sweetheart, Mary. Unable to justify what she witnesses at the auction – we get an inkling of the horror, if not a full depiction of the loathsome practices – she fights her still-enflamed passion for John, whom she feels has thrown away his gift for music, and joins the local abolitionist movement. Her mother (Elizabeth Ward Land) tries to steer her toward a more suitable match with the narcissistic Major Archibald Gray (Chris Hoch), who fearing he’ll lose the one person he feels might be worthy of his name, arranges for John‘s involuntary service aboard an outgoing ship. The Newtons’ slave, Thomas (and excellent Chuck Cooper), begs for Captain Newton to show John mercy and gets sent along with him as an afterthought.

In a truly amazing visual scene designed by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, the ship is wrecked and John and Thomas find themselves captives in Sierra Leone, ruled by the fierce Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy) who runs a slave-trade empire of her own. She finds that the handsome, educated and well connected Englishman can bring in even more money for her business, and provide services for her in the bedroom.

Every link of torture, indecency, insensitivity or cruelty that John forged in his life as a slave owner comes back to ensnare his soul as he finds himself suffering the same injustices. We see a sharp contrast between John, and his descent into depravity (skillfully portrayed by Young with depth into the agony of a soul in despair and torment) and Cooper’s Thomas, who becomes the embodiment of the grace the cast and audience will be singing about at the show’s curtain call, despite the injustices and betrayal the character has experienced. It’s very moving.

Toni-Leslie James’s costumes show contrasts as well: the rags of the slaves and the elegant, well appointed gowns and gentlemen’s garb – brilliantly created out of muted colors, which remind us that their lives aren’t as bright as they seem.

Meanwhile, back in England where John is presumed dead, Mary continues to see Major Gray so she can spy on him for the abolitionists She also grows closer with her beloved Nanna (Laiona Michelle), who shares about her life before being sold into slavery, and of the daughter, Yema (Rachael Ferrera), who was ripped from her arms all those years ago. Mary has become just as dear to her and she urges her to abandon her dangerous abolitionist activities. After all, slavery is just a way of life, she says...

The only thing that can redeem all of these lives and set them on the right course is God himself. When John finally yields (no spoiler here, I assume), he discovers what many of those around him have known for years --  that God’s grace is amazing – and his life is forever changed. The singing of the hymn at the conclusion by the cast and audience is a worshipful experience with many audience members shedding tears.

Some room for improvement:

·         Smith’s music is dramatic and gives Young, Mackey and Cooper a chance to show off their vocal prowess. On disappointment, is “Nothing There to Love,” a song I fell in love with years ago. It is perfection of the solo filled with emotion and just the right notes – an amazing accomplishment for a composer with no real training. In every other rendition I have heard, it builds to a soul-stirring and satisfying conclusion. Here, however, as arranged by Joseph Church, who provides musical direction and incidental music, the song is reined in, stripped of all its “oompf” and fails to be the showstopper it could have been. The rest of the score is adequate, but lacks the swell of big Broadway – particularly the opening number which loses itself in storytelling.
·         Christopher Gatelli’s movements for the Africans look more like a choreographed show number than a native dance. The song itself has strains of what will become the song "Amazing Grace". Kudos, Mr. Smith.

More information:
Amazing Grace sings out at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets: $65-$139; www.AmazingGraceMusical.com; 877-250-2929.

The ensemble: Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Mike Evariste, Sean Ewing, Savannah Frazier, Christopher Gurr, Allen Kendall, Michael Dean Morgan, Vince Oddo, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Gavriel Savit, Dan Sharkey, Bret Shuford, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Toni Elizabeth White and Hollie E. Wright.


Christians might also like to know:
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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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