Friday, July 17, 2015

Margin Notes: Amazing Grace

Josh Young as John Newton, with Ensemble.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Thursday, 6/25/15.
My grade: D.

Plot and Background
John 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later go on to write the song "Amazing Grace," is in his youth a bit of a manchild, rebelling against his emotionally withdrawn father, drinking too much, and getting into one too many scrapes.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 Beforehand
I 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.
The writing's not all bad - there is definitely an appealing bombast to a lot of the score, even if the lyrics are largely unmemorable, crutching on abstract concepts. And I don't think a single audience member could help getting chills when the entire company sings the title song in full-throated harmony, a cappella. There are bits of this show that hint at what could be a good show. Some of the bones are there. But the majority of it is so awkwardly constructed that you'd need a complete overhaul (plot, book, score) in order to actually mine the show's potential. I could see, sometimes, how to fix it, or at least part of it. But I'm afraid all we might achieve would still be a bit of a dullard.

Cast: I adore Josh Young's voice and would probably listen to him sing the phonebook, he sounds so damn good (hey, remember phonebooks?). Unfortunately, when given weak material, his acting isn't all that interesting. He plays particular emotions more than he plays a full character with an emotional throughline. Of the rest of the cast, Chuck Cooper is indisputably the heavy hitter as Newton's loyal slave, Thomas, with his overpowering vocals, his seething presence, his deep pain. Erin Mackey, Tom Hewitt, and Laiona Michelle do their best with what little they have, and Mackey in particular is able to make use of her lovely soprano.

Design: Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce's set took its inspiration from the various ships on which Newton sails, and it's versatile enough, if vaguely confusing during the Christmas parties. Speaking of the Christmas parties, Christopher Gattelli's choreography has a great little coup here in a complicated court dance staged to allow various little arguments and flirtations among the dancers.


Running: Now playing at Nederlander Theatre - Opening: July 16, 2015.
Category: musical
Length: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book: Arthur Giron & Christopher Smith
Music & Lyrics: Christopher Smith
Director: Gabriel Barre
Designers: Christopher Gattelli (Choreography), Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce (Set), Toni-Leslie James (Costume), Ken Billington & Paul Miller (Lighting), Jon Weston (Sound), Kenny Seymour (Orchestrations).
Cast: Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch, Tom Hewitt, Stanley Bahorek, Harriet D. Foy, Laiona Michelle, Rachael Ferrera, Elizabeth Ward Land, Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Mike Evariste, Sean Ewing, Savannah Frazier, Christopher Gurr, Allen Kendall, Michael Dean Morgan, Vince Oddo, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Gavriel Savit, Dan Sharkey, Bret Shuford, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charlese Wallace, Toni Elizabeth White, Hollie E. Wright.

Chris Hoch and Erin Mackey, center, as Major Gray and Mary Catlett,
with Ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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