'Amazing Grace' - A Decidedly Retro Musical

Erin Mackey and Josh Young in Amazing Grace
(©Joan Marcus)

Theatergoers should expect a rocky theatrical voyage if they’re planning on seeing Amazing Grace, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

The show, which relates the events that led John Newton (Josh Young) to compose the classic hymn that gives the musical its title, has been written by two newcomers to theater. Christopher Smith, a self-taught musician has written the score, and he and Arthur Giron have co-written the show’s book. The fact that these writers have gotten their first effort into a Broadway berth in and of itself is pretty impressive. Further, Smith’s ability to pen songs in the vein of Boublil and Schönberg (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) or Frank Wildhorn signals a potential talent to be reckoned with.

Tastes have obviously changed since the former team’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and so, Amazing Grace has a decidedly retro, if not horribly dated, feel to it. At the same time, some numbers, particularly a pastiche of a operatic Christmas carol that’s sung by Newton’s love interest Mary (Erin Mackey, sounding ravishing), are quite pleasing to the ear.

As lyricist, Smith has less success. His lyrics come in the blunt declamatory style of the popera, which proves wearisome, and this, along with the show’s shallowly conceived book, is what proves to be the undoing of Amazing Grace.

For this show about British slave traders in the eighteenth century, Smith and Giron have conceived characters that hearken back to works much older than the poperas. On many levels, the show can feel as if it comes from the mold of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Caucasian characters are troubled souls, just waiting to be redeemed, noble beyond compare or simply villainous, while the African-American ones suffer their servitude stalwartly and with dignity.

Thus, we have the hero of Newton, who as the show opens has returned to England after 11 months at sea. He had fled the school his father had put him in and still wants to rebel. He’s also desperately seeking his father’s approval, so much so that he steps in to oversee an auction of newly-arrived slaves. “I'll make more money than father ever dreamed,” he says. Before the show has ended, though, Newton has had an epiphany (thanks to surviving a storm at sea), and has become a staunch abolitionist.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mary, Newton’s childhood sweetheart. She witnesses the auction and eventually becomes part of the illegal abolitionist movement, spying on the Major (Chris Hoch), who hopes to win her hand in marriage.

Both Newton and Mary have slave servants. For him, it’s Thomas (Chuck Cooper), who serves as both a confidante and eventual voice of conscience for his younger master, and for her, it’s Nanna (Laiona Michelle), who finds herself paying the price for her mistress’ subversive activities. Amazing Grace features another principal African character: Princess Peyal (Harriet D. Foy), a member of the royal family in Sierra Leone, where Newton’s held captive for a period after a ship he is on is attacked and sunk by pirates. The princess also practices in the slave trade, selling off her subjects and keeping them as her servants.

The characterizations and the twists and turns in the plotting combine to make Amazing Grace feel as if it might have been adapted from a nineteenth century potboiler, and one that becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously. After the storm at sea, Newton’s ship is “full of holes” and yet, his first command is to head to not sail for home, but rather Barbados.

Thankfully, director Gabriel Barre has an estimable company at his command. Young has a powerhouse voice that commands attention. Mackey not only sounds terrific, but she also imbues Mary with a winning spunk, making the character one audiences can’t help but cheer for. The same can be said of Cooper, whose deep voice has never sounded smoother and who navigates the dicey role of Thomas with grace. Additionally, Tom Hewett makes curmudgeonly gruffness almost endearing in his portrayal of Newton’s father, and Hoch, playing the vain, foppish Major, proves to be a villain that audiences love to hate.

Beyond the performances, Barre’s production benefits from some top-flight designers, particularly Toni-Leslie James’ handsome period costumes and Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s understated lighting design. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s scenic design keeps the action moving fluidly, and Jon Weston’s sound design subtly amplifies the company and orchestra alike.

And, while this work, as well as the performers', provides Amazing Grace with a polished sheen, it’s not enough to cover the musical’s underlying flaws.

---- Andy Propst

Amazing Grace plays at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street). For more information and tickets, visit: amazinggracemusical.com.