New York City Theater
You don’t have to be Christian to like “Amazing Grace,” but it probably helps. The earnest, persuasive, well-mounted musical (workshopped three years ago at Goodspeed) advertises itself as the story of that famous hymn, yet is really about many other topics, with the song itself almost an afterthought. Until the cast sings a full-throated “Amazing Grace” towards the end, this is a sometimes dynamic, sometimes shallow, telling of John Newton, the slave-trader who had a change of heart and wrote the lyrics to that song of freedom.
Newton’s adventures begin when, following in his father’s footsteps, he auctions “Negroes.” Several storms at sea later, he’s in Africa where he sees the slave trade up close. Captured by the wicked Princess Payai, a black woman who herself deals in slaves, he eventually joins her in sending natives to distant shores.
One of the musical’s strengths is its insistence on not cleansing the story of its more brutal, capitalistic aspects. Selling slaves is a business and, although the young Newton rejects his father, he doesn’t reject his father’s trade.
His conscience is the woman he loves, Mary Catlett. Upon seeing slaves branded like cattle, she joins the abolitionist movement, to Newton’s chagrin. Her nemesis is Major Gray, a villainous, randy fellow with roving fingers, given to all sorts of underhanded deceptions. Pretending to care for him, she uses him for her own – and the abolitionists’ – purposes.
Also representing Newton’s subterranean good side is his personal servant Thomas, whom he eventually betrays, then saves. Paradoxically, at the end of act one in a beautifully staged scene, it’s Thomas who saves Newton from drowning.
With music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, and a book by Smith and Arthur Giron, this is pretty straightforward stuff. The score is serviceable, with occasional highlights like “Truly Alive.” But lyrics often run to “I banished from my mind / The pain I left behind.” The evening is not rich in depth of motivation, but it does not shy away from detailing the evils of slavery.
True, the setting is mid-18th-century England, but on the griddle are America, its original sin of slavery and its subsequent inability to escape from racial strife. When President Obama so movingly sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for one of the victims of the Charleston massacre, he invoked the enslavement of an entire race.
Newton’s shipboard salvation is hard to believe rationally. You have to take it on faith since it not only happens so suddenly, it’s ill prepared for. It’s also so external that you begin to suspect the authors ran out of plot and knew they had to hightail it towards that hymn before the final curtain.
Josh Young (so excellent as Judas in the recent revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar”) plays Newton as energetic, callow and self-serving. (“I don’t want anyone to tell me they think what I should be,” he says, and, “You never get anywhere if you play by the rules.”) Clearly, this guy’s got to either turn his life around or be killed.
Young’s good looks and striking physicality are a refreshing contrast to his actions as an anti-hero. When Mary, who loves him, protests about how slaves are treated, he says, “It’s the world we live in; we don’t have to like it.” Young, caught in the plot’s jaws, makes Newton’s opportunism plausible and almost does the same for his repentance and conversion.
Vigorously choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and fluidly directed by Gabriel Barre, the evening has vibrancy. They’re helped by a fine cast: Tom Hewitt as Newton’s tough love father; the great Chuck Cooper as defiant, affectionate Thomas whose “Nowhere to Run” sends shivers; Chris Hoch as the evil major; Laiona Michelle as the nurturing Nanna; Harriet D. Foy as the sadistic Princess Peyai; Rachael Ferrera as the lovely Yema; Stanley Bahorek as the sympathetic Robert Haweis; and the beguiling Erin Mackey as the crystal-voiced, anything but spineless Mary Catlett. Newton is the story’s body; she’s its soul.
A side note: The world changed for Great Britain when, in 1807, that country abolished the slave trade and, in 1833, before our own Civil War, banished slavery itself. “Amazing Grace” brings all the horror and degradation of the sinful slave business to the fore.
--David A. Rosenberg
July 26, 2015