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.
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.
For an article featuring Christopher Smith during the Goodspeed run, click here.
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