Although it is the best part of the whole show, Amazing Grace is not really about the song and how it was created. No, it is about John Newton, a real scum of a guy, who, if we are to believe the story that opened last night at the Nederlander Theatre, was brought into the light of righteousness by a bolt of lightning while strapped to a ship mast. Divine intervention? I doubt it, since in real life Newton continued his scumbag ways as a clergyman/slave trader long after the incidents portrayed on stage. But it sure makes for some drama and - at the Sunday matinee I attended, anyway - cause for some religious calls to glory. Unfortunately, the show by newbie Christopher Smith (music, lyrics and co-book writer with Arthur Giron), is yet another one of those where you can see flashes of "what could have been" coupled with a ton of playing it safe. The result is an alternately interesting, pleasant, and (mostly) boring production.
First, let's give credit where credit is due. First and foremost, the title number has probably some of the best vocal direction/orchestration elements in any show currently on the boards - the cast sings it perfectly, and it is rousing. Not rousing enough to warrant people standing and applauding while it goes on (a disturbing and decreasingly effective trend in audience adoration), but it is music to the ears, for sure. The downside is the straight-on delivery of the company who look less reverent and more smug and self-satisfied than they should. Most of the music in the rest of the score, too, is appropriately moody and definitely interesting to hear. (I'll be kind and simply say that the lyrics (title song excepted) rhyme like a child's book of poetry, with nothing clever or profound to add to the show. At. All.) And Smith doesn't shy away from the unpleasantness of the topic, including a rather frank examination of the slave trade very often overlooked in history classes: that the British and American colonists (largely absent here) were not the only bad guys. The book offers several scenes that depict the African royalty as complicit in sending their own people on to those ships. Also, the technical elements are quite good, especially Toni-Leslie James' lovely period costumes, Ken Billington and Paul Miller's exciting lighting, and Jon Weston's clear-as-a-bell sound.
As I said, there are a few moments where you can see just how great this show could have been. There is the chilling opening visual: dancers in silhouette against the Union Jack, who morph startlingly into captive slaves. And the gritty confrontation between a life-long slave (the always amazing - and woefully under-utilized - Chuck Cooper) and his absolution-seeking master (more on Josh Young later) is a stirring, brilliantly acted scene. No one in the cast is really bad, actually; most of them are doing the best they can with the material they were given.
Barre has staged some scenes very effectively, bringing clarity to scenes that take place in different locales simultaneously. Similarly, he has guided his actors to compartmentalize their performances. The result is efficient, but lacking any real bite or depth. Cooper is sympathetic from the get-go, the lovely Erin Mackey is a feisty ingenue, but her character's "smarts" are at odds with her actions - it is never entirely clear why she sticks with such a jerk (I'm being kind) as John Newton when he embodies all that she loathes about society. And, despite wonderful performances from both (you can't help but like them), the evil princess played by Harriet D. Foy, and the priggish dandy officer played by Chris Hoch are little more than campy fun in a deadly serious world. And, as expected, Tom Hewitt is playing yet another tired iteration of his Scar from The Lion King.
Naturally, this fragmentation is not entirely Barre or his casts' fault, either, as Smith and Giron's book is all over the map to begin with, hovering somewhere between a safe Wonderful World of Disney live-action historical drama, a Hallmark Hall of Fame "important" drama, and, rarely, a hard-hitting expose on one of history's darkest chapters (the branding of slaves is pretty realistic here and hard to forget). So it's no wonder that there seems to be 4 different shows going on at the same time.
The one constant through-thread of the piece is John Newton, and, to be frank, I just didn't care about him. As written, he is a self-involved, self-pitying asshole of a guy who was all about himself centuries before it was the cool thing to be. And by the time it finally gets around to his big "redemption," I simply didn't care. Or believe him. A lot of that has to do with a script that paints him as an evil bastard all the way until the last scenes, when all of a sudden we are supposed to see the sinner reversed and the saint shine through. Too rushed, and too little, too late. (Tacking on the biggest contribution to the world he made as an after-thought/finale number doesn't help, since we are supposed to think what we saw made him write such a profound song, but all I kept thinking was, "what a great way to get out of all the crap you did for most of your life.")
Book and direction issues aside, the biggest problem with the show is a leading man who is so one-note, it is almost laughable. Josh Young sings every song perfectly, and you can hear the money notes coming a mile away. And he swaggers about the stage with a fierce seriousness, and an unrelenting earnestness. When he's angry, he shouts, when he's beaten down, he cowers, etc. And, having sat in the second row (great rush seats, btw!), I can tell you Young is an excellent crier. In fact, there were tears in his eyes in nearly every scene, justified or not. The performance was exactly what most people have come to expect - sing it loud, with a decent vibrato and strut in fun costumes, and you deserve a standing-o and all "whaoo!"s a body can scream, right? The truth is, this is a performance that TV shows like Saturday Night Live conjure when they are doing a parody of a Broadway leading man. Only he's not doing a send up. He's just less than amazing.
JKTS GRADE GRID:
Score: Music (5)
Score: Lyrics (5)
Leading Roles (7)
Supporting Roles (7)
Unity of Concept (5)
Entertainment Value (5)
Photos by Joan Marcus