|Josh Young as John Newton, with Ensemble. |
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Seen on: Thursday, 6/25/15.
My grade: D.
Plot and BackgroundJohn Newton, who would later go on to write the song "Amazing Grace," is in his youth a bit of a manchild, rebelling against his emotionally withdrawn father, drinking too much, and getting into one too many scrapes. When his ship is attacked at sea, he's taken hostage by Princess Peyai, and continues in his father's line, helping her to sell African slaves. After his father rescues him, their ship is torn apart in a storm, and Newton experiences a religious awakening when he cries out to God and the ship is spared. Meanwhile in England, his childhood sweetheart Mary risks her life by spying for the abolitionist movement. This show was originally workshopped at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut in 2012. It had its world premiere in Chicago this past autumn, and has transferred to Broadway.
What I Knew BeforehandI knew (or thought I knew) it was about the genesis of the popular titular song, which turned out to be incorrect. And I was excited to see Josh Young perform again, having enjoyed his voice in JCS.
Play: Big ol' grain of salt - I saw the first preview performance. That being said, my issues with the show don't seem to be ones fixable before opening night. The first and possibly biggest problem is the show's chosen subject: John Newton, as portrayed in the show, is a drunkard, a dropout, a dick with daddy issues, a man unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, and by the way a man who sells and trades literally thousands of slaves in both England and Africa. The show assures us in its epilogue that, after the nearly three hours we watched of him being awful, he went on to fifty years of working for abolitionist causes. That's awesome, and I'm glad he finally learned from his actions, but where is that story? Why do we get only an epilogue acknowledgement of the show's protagonist not being a shit? The only redeeming thing about Newton as portrayed within the show's narrative is the fact that he's played by Josh Young, who has one of the most beautiful baritones on Broadway.
Other issues I had with the show include:
- Too many monologues and speechifying. Typically in a musical, when a character feels the need to speechify, he or she expresses that through song and thus sways the audience with the power of the emotion and the rhetoric and soaring melody and whatnot.
- You would think, with a show that takes its title and its advertising from the fact that Newton would go on to write the universally known song "Amazing Grace," that that would also work its way into the narrative, instead of serving as a coda to the epilogue.
- Honestly, the structure was all over the place. The villain Major Gray isn't that villainous (he's a dick, but so is Newton), the hero (as already pointed out) isn't that heroic, and Mary, the female lead and love interest, the one with the actual heroic plot of intrigue and nobility, is handled so dully that I kept tuning out.