It’s miraculous that this musical managed to cross the finish line, to land at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. We all know how difficult it is to mount a musical these days, not only because of the many millions of dollars required to do so, but because even with the capitalization complete, the road to home is filled with ruts, detours, and the kind of interference and mess that reminds me of the never-ending building of the so-called Second Avenue subway.
Carolyn Rossi Copeland and her lead producer Alexander Rankin are reasonably new to the Broadway scene. Mr. Rankin in particular has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois and among his many other achievements he formed a company called Vulcan Spring in his basement manufacturing constant-torque springs to drive Hasbro’s G.I.Joe talking mechanism. Not exactly what we’d expect from someone putting on a musical. His many other credits in fields not even remotely connected to theatre further suggest that, were he to play a game of “What’s My Line?”it’s not likely you’d come up with “Broadway producer” as the answer.
Christopher Smith, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics to this show, is another phenomenon. This piece is his first work of professional writing. He’s been composing music since his teens and is entirely self-taught. He first conceived and gave birth to this full-blown musical when he was working as a police officer in Montgomery County, PA. He did have some help on the book from Arthur Giron, who is a practicing playwright, one of the founders of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, but he is hardly known for his work on musicals.
Director Gabriel Barre and Choreographer Christopher Gattelli do have backgrounds that are connected to the fabulous invalid called “Musical Theatre” and they have joined forces with casting director Pat McCorkle to assemble a company of some 30 gifted singers, actors, dancers, none of whom are familiar even to those of us who see a lot of theatre.
The story concerns itself with the tale of John Newton, the Englishman who, in the mid 18th century, wrote the music and lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that remains at the top of the list of liturgical hits. This musical play tells how that came to be, which is a fascinating and little known tale that takes Mr. Newton, and us along with him, from his highly ranked family in Chatham, England in December 1744 to various homes and on to the local cemetery, to the Chatham docks and on board HMS Harwich, with Act One landing us all at sea off the coast of Africa.
Newton wants to go to sea, but his dominating father wants him to go to school. The young son forges his father’s name on a mariner’s license and runs off on one of the old man’s ships – as a slave trader. There is a woman, Mary Catlett, whom John loves, but she will have to wait until he is ready for marriage.
The Second Act begins in Sierra Leone, where an African princess has taken Newton prisoner. There are twists and turns, and Newton emerges from them all as a different man, one who considers his own transformation miraculous, and it leads to a happy ending and the smashing introduction of the title tune. Its melody and its lyrics resonate more clearly once we know from where they sprang.
Josh Young plays John Newton with great fervor and panache and he sings beautifully. He reminded me of the young Richard Kiley when he shocked us all in Kismet, for until then we’d thought of him strictly as an actor in plays. Josh Young has the looks, the voice that have given him employment in Les Miz, Jesus Christ Superstar, and in Amazing Grace when it premiered in Chicago, but though his credits are impressive, this is his first major engagement on Broadway, and he is welcome indeed.
Erin Mackey, who plays his great love Mary Catlett, has been with us before, but again her best roles have been in the regional theatres, and she is a first-rate leading lady.
Tom Hewitt, with a rich background of character roles, makes a striking figure as Newton’s father, and Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper as an African called Pakuteh who has been renamed “Thomas” is particularly moving as his character evolves during the densely plotted musical.
A highly imaginative and fluid scenic design by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce adds immeasurably to the evening’s pleasures. The inventive use of fabric, ropes, and pulleys are thrillingly put to use to convey the movements of the HMS Harwich, even to the depiction of a deep water rescue which is a breathtaking moment just before intermission.
Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s lighting is most effective, and Jon Weston’s sound design is absolute perfection. Christopher Smith’s writing is not quite up to the very high standards of the rest. He does manage to tell a complicated story clearly, but without any noticeable literary grace or style. His music and lyrics do their job, but when the compelling evening was over, I felt I’d just witnessed a well-done documentary about a little known back story on the writing of a much beloved hymn. In that sense, the libretto does work — it shows us the source of the simple and eloquent words in the hymn. I would have liked the language of the book and lyrics, as well as the loveliness of the music would have matched those aspects of Newton’s hymn.
But there is much to enjoy in this most surprising early entry in the 2015-16 Season on Broadway. It’s beautifully acted; it introduces us to a major star in Josh Young; it is well plotted, and inventively staged. Though it contains some ugliness in dramatizing the owner-slave relationships, it does so with theatrical integrity, and does what theatre can do to enlarge our own understanding of the past.
Ultimately, I was very moved by this Amazing Grace, the creators of which have accomplished much in this, their first time tackling the tough demands of Broadway.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus an intermission.