Broadway in Chicago presents the pre-Broadway world premiere of AMAZING GRACE.
Songs are more meaningful when the lyrics aren’t just heard, they are understood. And the experience becomes more profound when each word is felt. Christopher Smith (music, lyrics, book) and Arthur Giron (book) deconstruct the words to the song “Amazing Grace” by telling the story of its creator, John Newton. The beloved hymn about one man’s redemption has become mankind’s anthem about Divine intervention. And the tribute is even more moving knowing that Newton was indeed a ‘wretch like me.’
Newton (played with conviction by the charismatic Josh Young) is a spoiled, young man. He is a slave trader. Despite the love of his childhood sweetheart and the guidance of his man servant, Newton meanders down a destructive path. Although he is beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and nearly drowned, his bad choices continue. This true story of Newton’s transformation is riveting.
This isn’t a light-hearted musical. It’s a thought-provoking one. Director Gabriel Barre masterfully takes Smith and Giron’s script and gives it hearty sea legs to stand on. Barre creates unforgettable visuals in showcasing the slave trade in 1700 Britain. At one point, ladies are ushered out of the merchant area so gentlemen can conduct business. The elegance of the well-dressed folk (costume designer Toni-Leslie James) contrasts dramatically as a cage of slaves is hoisted onto the stage. It’s gut-punchingly startling. Later, Barre memorably illustrates Young being rescued at sea by Chuck Cooper (Thomas). Behind a screen sea backdrop, the silhouette of Young tangled in ropes is drifting down from the ceiling. Cooper enters from the other side and robustly swims down to collectYoung and then bring him up to the surface. The scene is both stunning and heartwarming. Both of these very different scenes provoke an emotional response in the audience but not in Young.
Young makes Newton both likable and despicable. He is able to be dashing while trafficking human beings. Young never comes across evil just misguided…over and over. There is a particularly poignant scene when Newton’s father (played by the adept Tom Hewitt) and Princess Peyai (played by the scintillating Harriett D. Foy) tell Newton that he is a slave. The role reversal combined with Young’s visible confusion is this palpable revelation. We see the beginning of his metamorphosis yet it’ll still take a perfect storm to complete his conversion. Smith and Giron’s hero takes his time arriving. Luckily, they have a feisty heroine.
At the heart of the musical is the love story between Young and Erin Mackey (Mary). The plucky Mackey challenges Young to be his true self. Even though for most of the play they are apart, they establish an unspoken commitment to each other early on. Mackey nicely balances Young’s slave trade dealings with her abolitionist work. The delightful Mackey delivers humor and depth. She wittingly keeps the smarmy Chris Hoch at arm’s length while subtly waving in the rebellion with a yellow fan. When Young arrives to rescue her, she already has the situation under control. Smith and Giron wrote a strong female lead and Mackey is a perfect fit in the role.
Well, the show is about the song “Amazing Grace.” So, there is an expectation and anticipation. And when it’s delivered in the epilogue after witnessing the tumultuous life of John Newton, it’s an inspirational powerhouse. (Bring tissues, it’s a tearjerker.) It’s reprised during the curtain call and the standing ovation is only paused so the audience can sing along. AMAZING GRACE is a family classic in the making. The musical is on its way to becoming as beloved as the song itself.
Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes includes an intermission
At Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith
Book by Arthur Giron and Christopher Smith
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Music direction by Joseph Church
Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 8pm
Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm
Thru November 2nd
Buy tickets at www.BroadwayinChicago.com
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