Not too long after President Obama unexpectedly broke into “Amazing Grace” at a widely televised memorial service, a well-meant and well-sung but underwhelming musical depicting the redemptive life saga of John Newton, the writer of that 1772 religious hymn, has materialized on Broadway. While Amazing Grace does include a beautiful choral rendition of the title song, the rest of the score is by Pennsylvania police officer turned Broadway novice Christopher Smith.
Newton (Josh Young) is a young 18th-century English merchant whose family business is the slave trade. In the musical’s most disturbing and chilling moment, newly arrived slaves arrive in a cage and are violently pulled out for a public auction and then branded on their backs.
From there, Newton is plucked away from his virtuous girlfriend (Erin Mackey) and disapproving father (Tom Hewitt) and conscripted into the navy, accompanied only by his slave Thomas (Chuck Cooper). Not soon after, Newton is shipwrecked and becomes the prisoner of an African princess, who uses him to build her own slave-trading operation. Finally, he comes back to England as a newly enlightened, songwriting abolitionist. Finally, the cast sings – you guessed it – “Amazing Grace.” The song is not even integrated into the plot, and needs to be introduced through expository narration.
Resembling an old-fashioned adventure novel, Amazing Grace is packed full of clunky plot twists, sentimentality and one-dimensional characters. Smith’s mushy, forgettable songs sound like the work of someone who loves Les Miz but has little talent of his own. The workmanlike production (directed by Gabriel Barre) pulls off a visual coup at the end of act one to show Newton on the verge of sinking before being rescued by Thomas.
From a purely practical perspective, Amazing Grace was a bad idea from the start because Smith’s songs, even if they had been better, would still be serving as filler material that leads up to the hymn. Perhaps this should have been a play, and “Amazing Grace” could have been its only song.
Young, who scored a Tony nomination for his terrific performance as Judas in the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, has considerable charisma, which helps to keep someone engaged in this otherwise leaden affair. Longtime Broadway veteran Cooper (The Life, Finian’s Rainbow) imbues his rather poorly written character with considerable gravitas and sorrow. (The relationship between Newton and Thomas is problematic and troubling from a modern perspective.) Mackey (Chaplin, Sondheim on Sondheim) has little to work with, so she spends much of the show pouting, while Hewitt (Dracula) maintains a starchy look throughout.
At my performance, when “Amazing Grace” was sung, various audience members stood up in deference to the song. Too bad they couldn’t just sing it at the beginning, hand out a Wikpedia article on the life of John Newton, and save everyone two and a half hours!