June 27, 2015
|Photo courtesy of Amazing Grace|
Amazing Grace is the story of the spiritual awakening of John Newton, the man who wrote the well-known hymn of the same title. This new musical has a flat and relatively melodramatic first act. The second act contains truthful moments culminating in an emotional finale. Hopefully the creative team can make some well needed adjustments before the show opens on July 16.
The story begins on a pier in Chatham, England in December, 1744 as John Newton (played by Josh Young) returns from a long sea voyage. He is met by his beloved, Mary Catlett (played by Erin Mackey). He sings to her about the journeys he is yearning for in order to find freedom from his father’s control. The ironic twist at the end of the scene is extremely effective. It is revealed that he has actually returned from a slave trade expedition. Not only that, but his father owns the slave trading ship and company, and John Newton makes his fortune by selling slaves.
|Chuck Copper & Josh Young|
Photo courtesy of Amazing Grace
Act I continues by setting up the main conflicts of the story: a father’s disappointment, a son’s agony of his mother’s death and his father’s emotional abandonment, a young woman’s need to marry for social status and financial security, and true love that is disregarded due to emotional upheaval and social responsibility. The villains are identified and the hero’s obstacles are clear, but due to the circumstances, these conflicts and the characters are not emotionally engaging - it is too clean and pristine a rendition of a story that is dirty with slave trading and brutality.
Act II has genuine moments of suffering, pain, and integrity. Chuck Cooper (as Pakuteh/Thomas), and Laiona Michelle (as Nanna) delve deeply in their portrayal of slaves owned by the two main characters. Their heartfelt and visceral performances create genuine moments of loyalty and betrayal that heighten the dramatic action of the second act and drive the story forward.
|Laiona Michelle & Erin Mackey|
Photos courtesy of Amazing Grace
The vocal skills of Josh Young and Erin Mackey are stunning and strong. The score by Christopher Smith is outshined by the finale of “Amazing Grace.” It is well orchestrated and superbly performed, yet not as poignant as when PresidentObama sang it last week in North Carolina. The audience in the theatre did, however, rise to its feet and join in when the song was reprised during curtain call.
The story of the transformation of John Nash enhances the meaning and value of his most known hymn, which was written in 1779. His story is worth telling and worth knowing. Is this musical, however, the best venue for an effective telling of this powerful story? Can director Gabriele Barre eliminate the melodrama and rework scenes and characterizations that will be emotionally engaging, and tighten up this almost three hour musical? Let’s hope so. Write a comment if you see it and let me know how the show is developing.