AMAZING GRACE Review, Broadway In Chicago – A New Musical That Needs A Lot More Work

 

The best thing I can say about Amazing Grace, the newest out of town “tryout” to reach Chicago, is that it’s not terrible. Does that mean Amazing Grace is good? Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far. But Amazing Grace does have a lot of satisfying potential right now: a majority of the cast is stunning, the vocals are astounding, the costumes are gorgeous, and most importantly there is a real sincere heart behind the work that is really admirable.

 

 

Now, that being said, Amazing Grace still has some very worrisome problems right now that will require some major reconstruction of this entire script from the ground up if this show has any hope of actually going anywhere. For starters, the show’s unimaginative, predictable, and unoriginal score is stuffed full of lackluster power ballads that feel like they’ve been penned more for a concept recording album than for the sake of the story. Secondly, many of the show’s underwhelming characters are so plastic that they could very well be on display in a wax museum. Only a couple of characters are given any real depth. The rest are the type of cookie-cutter clichés you’d find in any early Disney cartoon film.

 

Lastly, and by far the most troubling problem here, is Aruthur Giron and Christopher Smith’s vexatious book. Amazing Grace mainly focuses on the early life of John Newton, a young, handsome, snobby, 18th century slave auctioneer and owner who very late in Act 2 abruptly decides that slavery is bad. His sudden change is not provoked by his discovery early in the show that his budding love interest is a fierce abolitionist, nor does it change when a slave saves his life from drowning in the ocean, nor from being killed by an African tribe, nor when he’s literally been pushed into slavery himself by the same tribe, and not even when he’s unwillingly forced to whip and then later sell Thomas, his own personal slave, a gentle and loyal man that he’s known all his life and for whom he has a heartfelt connection with. Nope. He sends Thomas off to Barbados and becomes an accomplice with the tribe’s African princess by continuing in the slave trade business. None of these major events force John to change his stubborn mind on slavery.

 

So after all this, what big climatic event finally happens that induces John Newton’s moral awakening? Reading a letter from his lover Mary about how much she believes in him…..Yes, you heard that right. John is on a ship, and he thinks he’s going to die in a violent storm so he reads the letter, passes out, hallucinates about his love, and when he wakes up he finally realizes that slavery might not be a good thing after all. As bizarre and pathetic as this turnaround is, even after John has this “epiphany” there’s still no real sense of redemption for this character. Outside of an emotional reconciliation with Thomas (who has been abused so badly by his new owners that he’s only a shell of the gentle kind man he once was) John still never really atones for his greater sins of bartering human lives. But yet we’re suddenly supposed to like him now? This storyline is an utter mess and it needs some major work.

 

And inter-sliced between John's story we have a substandard subplot involving Mary Catlett, the woman that John has a keen eye towards. John’s relationship with Mary gets sidetracked when Major Gray, a questionably “effeminate” man, arrives in town to seek out potential abolitionists and who also decides to go after Mary himself. Gray forces John against his will into the Royal Navy, and Mary in return uses Gray’s royal connections to protest her strong anti-slavery views to the Prince of England during a concert.

 

 

Now, I don’t want to accuse the creators of being intentionally racist by only really concentrating on the white characters for most of this show because they obviously had pure intentions in writing this. Slavery is just a by-product of the time period this show is set in and indeed most white people actively supported it. But even still these issues have to be handled with greater care than they are here. Having a musical that is almost entirely focused on a young attractive affluent white slave merchant and having him come out on top at the expense of poor black slaves is still offensive.

 

I get that the creators are trying to make this show more about John’s personal “awakening” (which needs a lot of work), and not about the monstrosity of slavery itself. But slavery is such an important social issue that it can never be brushed off as a side issue. In this show we see slaves in cages crying in horror for help, families being torn apart by slave handlers, humans forced against their will into being servants, slaves getting beaten with whips and having their humanity belittled. These are all unforgiveable crimes that John shares responsibility for. I don’t care how much redemption John tries to seek or how much his love Mary believes in him.

 

The bottom line is that in 2014 he would be thrown in jail for such transgressions. No abrupt change can undo this. I also should mention that the real historical John Newton continued to barter slaves even after his “change of heart” and he continued in this activity well after he wrote the song “Amazing Grace” and even after he became a priest later in life. So he’s already not the best historical figure to base an entire musical on, especially to hold in such a positive light at the end of this show.

 

 

So how can the creators fix this? Well for starters the central focus of this story is all wrong. It shouldn’t be about our two white characters, Mary and John. We already know from the start of the musical that they’ll end up together and we still don’t care even when they do. Their relationship is not interesting enough to really draw us into the story. Instead the focus here should be entirely on the fragile relationship between John Newton and his own slave Thomas. After all, Thomas is like an adopted father figure to John. Thomas helped raise John since he was a baby. And their relationship is the only one in this entire show that actually has a real compelling heart to it that is truly captivating to watch. Basically it’s the only relationship dynamic that really matters in this whole show. By comparison the similar connection that we’re shown between Mary Catlett and her family’s slave, Nanna, isn’t nearly as interesting simply because there’s no conflict between them.

 

What we need more of is a show about the delicate kinship between John and Thomas. We need a show about how they’ve bonded, how they’ve learned from each other, and how Thomas has taught John to grow up. Right now what we have is a show that basically just constantly shows us how foolish John is and how Mary is the one who turns his world around. It’s misguided.  Within the first ten minutes of the musical we already recognize that John is a spoiled self-centered brat. We don’t need scene after scene to demonstrate that point any further. What we do need though is to see the selfish John seriously struggle and come to terms with his growing inner moral consciousness. 

 

John needs more soul searching, and perhaps a new song that would develop that inner psychological fight even more for us. And we also need more of the heartfelt moments that don’t come until late in Act 2 when Thomas finally forgives John. Thomas needs more stage time as well. He’s a supporting character for most of the first act that doesn’t really get his chance to stand out until Act 2, and even then only for brief moments. Thomas is an interesting character and he deserves more development.

 

 

What might aid in amplifying John’s inner struggle even further is if his father, Captain Newton, weren’t so darn nice throughout the show. Even when the elder Newton is angry at John he’s still likeable, mostly because his frustration towards John’s behavior is totally understandable. It would be great if Captain Newton were a much stricter man and also a more avid proponent of slavery. He could instill that sense of rightful ownership in his son, thus giving John a major reason why he would have such a difficult time wrestling with himself between the lessons he inherited by his tough no-love father, and those given to him by Thomas, his kinder “father figure” who shows so much love and support for him.

 

Making this character adjustment will really raise the stakes. The elder Newton doesn’t have to be totally unlikeable throughout the show, he can still let his guard down in his Act 2 number, “A Chance for Me” which could easily be rewritten and reworked a bit more so we can understand why he was so strict with John growing up and how much regret he is filled with. There is a lot of dualities in this show, or at least it seems like there should be, and the writers need to explore that more in their characters.

 

 

As for Mary Catlett’s storyline, I’ve got to be honest; though this subplot adds some slight humor to the show it needs some major trimming. I like that Mary gives John some purpose to fight for, and the fact the she never stops believing in him is actually really sweet, but does she really need so much stage time in this show? A lot of it feels like a distraction from our main plot. Not to mention her whole storyline is so historically inaccurate from top to bottom that a lot of it doesn’t feel even remotely real. Mary’s bold anti-slavery speech to the Prince of England near the end of the show would never happen. Yes, I get that this musical has been highly fictionalized, but in the 18th century women had no say or role in society and her opinion wouldn’t have even been considered. It just wouldn’t happen.

 

The whole scene with Mary at the underground abolitionist gathering just does not ring true at all. This is mostly because the scene feels like an after-thought. We don’t really sense that they’re risking their lives. We don’t see what happens when one of them gets caught. And as a result we don’t care that Mary’s joined up with them. It needs more suspense, stakes, and desperation. It's too casual right now.

 

Further in Mary’s story the show throws in some homosexual stereotypes to evoke laughs by showing us Major Gray’s “courting” of Mary. I understand that turning Major Gray into a silly flamboyant character serves to undercut his authority which then allows Mary to feel like she can use him to her advantage, but why does he have to be homosexual, or at least an overtly perceived one? Even suspected homosexuality was a punishable crime in the 18th century so it would seem strange for Mary to suspect it as she does in the show and then just shrug it off like it’s nothing. It would be more believable and equally as funny if Major Gray was a straight man, who becomes extremely awkward and insecure only when he’s alone with women. It would make his pursuit of Mary feel more realistic and it would also give further justification for him to toss John out of the picture for a while.

 

 

Since there are an abundance of narrative problems in Amazing Grace I’m just going to pinpoint a few more that need fixing. Let’s start with the song “Amazing Grace” itself. This whole show is being generically marketed as “the story behind the world-famous song.” There’s not exactly a great audience draw in that, but it’s also very deceiving. In the last moments of the musical John and Mary reunite, she unbelievably just forgives him for his past slave dealings, and out of nowhere he casually mentions that he’s written a song about his experience entitled “Amazing Grace”. So the entire cast saunters on stage to sing a soaring version of it that is reminiscent of “One Day More” in Les Miserables. Though it was gorgeously sung, the song still feels like a footnote to the whole musical. If this is supposed to be the story behind the song then why don’t we see John actually come up with the idea? Why don’t we see him write it? Why aren’t we ever told he’s a music composer until the end of the show? What were his intentions in writing this song? Who was he hoping to sing it to? The whole thing just needs more development.

 

Also, “Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn. You’d never know that watching this show, though. God, religion, and spirituality are almost non-existent in Amazing Grace. I understand that the creators were probably trying to make this show seem more commercial by downplaying the religious aspects that are built into this story. But no matter how you slice it, it’s still a Christian story. And besides, religion was a major influence of life in the 18th century, and it needs to be expanded upon more in this story. It’s all too obvious that the creators are shying away from the all-important spiritual aspects in this show.

 

 

Then there are also some random moments where I guess they were trying to make John Newton seem more sympathetic. We hear him constantly talk about the bitterness of losing his mother, we see him go to her grave, and we see him fight with his father about how he “never really loved her”. Right now the deceased mother just seems like she’s being used as an excuse to justify John’s continual selfish acts throughout most of the show. Other than that I fail to see how she really factors much else into the overall story. It needs justification.

 

Finally, we have some bizarre scenes in Sierra Leon where John gets kidnapped and held for ransom by an African tribe and then conspires with this tribe to sell more slaves? It’s a mess. Yet, again, this entire plot point just isn’t taken seriously and therefore it’s all coming off like a joke. There’s no sense of danger or tension here until the guns start going off after John’s father arrives to rescue him. One major thing that needs to be done to fix these Africa scenes is to immediately cut out all of the weird sexual insinuations that are splattered throughout. Any sense of peril is instantly destroyed the moment we meet the tribe's leader, Peyai, an African dominatrix Princess who walks around brandishing a whip... and who occasionally licks John’s body out of nowhere. It’s not scary or intimidating, it’s just weird. And while I’m at it, the whole part where John is shirtless while he’s tied up and beaten with whips is, well… it’s not exactly coming across that he’s suffering. I’m guessing SDMS was not what was intended when this scene was written, but on stage it’s just not translating well.

 

 

As for the music, I actually really admire the fact that Christopher Smith has no professional experience and that he’s self-taught. Some of the most groundbreaking musical theatre scores happened by newcomers who broke conventional rules without even realizing it simply because they didn’t know what the rules were to begin with. That said there is nothing groundbreaking or exciting about Smith’s music in this show. It’s sadly one of the most disappointing, undistinctive, and mediocre conventional scores that I’ve heard from a new musical in a long time.

 

Most of the power-ballads all sound the exact same and they pretty much all end on the same long held out dramatic notes. There are no layers to the songs. Additionally, with the exception of our title song “Amazing Grace”, you won’t walk out of the theatre remembering much else. Overall Smith’s lyrics are just dull. They don’t really reveal any of the character’s inner psychology, they don’t add much to the story, they aren’t poetic, and most of the time they just flatly sit there letting the characters vent on one emotion for an entire power-ballad without going anywhere. We already know how these characters are feeling from the book scenes that precede them, so many of these songs are totally unnecessary since they don’t add anything we didn’t already know.

 

And if some of these songs sound familiar it’s because they’re basically just sub-par imitations of music that’s already been heard on stage before in shows such as Once On This Island (“Hoon Kay-ay”, “Yema’s Song”), The Lion King (“Daybreak”, “Nowhere Left to Run”), and  Les Miserables (“We Are Determined”, “A Chance for Me”, “Testimony”). Unfortunately the rest of the songs in this show bring to mind the shabby pop-ballads that are reminiscent of the composer Frank Wildhorn at his absolute worst, especially The Scarlett Pimpernel. In fact, almost everything in this show sounds like they’re just pale substitutions, even the opening flute solo of the “Amazing Grace” melody, orchestrated by Kenny Seymour, oddly resembles the flute solo theme song in James Cameron’s Titanic film. Where’s the originality?

 

Obviously, none of this is personal. Christopher Smith is clearly talented and I am very impressed by what he’s accomplished considering his background as a former police officer in Pennsylvania. I give him some major credit for that. I hope that he continues to write because he’s definitely going places. What Smith needs to work on though is finding a way to express himself through his music. Or to put it another way, I get the sense that Smith was being overly cautious to the point where his music feels uninspired. What I’m hearing in Amazing Grace are the same standard musical theatre songs that I feel Smith is expecting we’ll want to hear, whereas the music would have been better if he had taken a risk and given them his own unique and original musical stylistic flavor. Originality is always better than blandness.

 

 

 

Josh Young, the charming actor playing our lead John Newton, has a gorgeous spine-tingling and lush voice that is downright sensational, but his voice is only good when he sings. When Mr. Young talks he’s doing some strange melodramatic stage actor voice that sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of a 1940s radio announcer. I don’t know if it’s a character choice or a bad habit, but he needs to work on it.

 

Erin Mackey, our female lead who plays Mary Catlett, has the opposite problem. Her acting is enjoyable to watch and she is making some really interesting choices, but vocally she’s not as strong of a singer as the book repeatedly makes her out to be. Now, I’m not saying that Mackey is a bad singer, she’s quite good, but her slender voice is a bit timid at times, and hardly amazing, especially when compared to the spectacular singing vocals of Mr. Young. Mackey’s biggest problem with her singing is that her articulation goes completely out the window anytime she sings in her higher soprano register. Entire phrases are getting lost in the process.

 

The two performers that are standing out the most in this cast aren’t our two leads, but their supporting slave characters. As John’s loyal slave Thomas, Chuck Cooper is absolutely remarkable. Mr. Cooper’s honest performance, especially in his last scene where he confronts John was the most gripping and real moment in the entire musical. It’s the only time that this musical really comes “truly alive” and it actually had people tearing up in the house. It’s a performance that really has to be seen to truly appreciate. Laiona Michelle also has some beautiful moments as the Catlett family's underdeveloped slave Nanna. Michelle gave both of her songs some deep layers filled with pain and regret that were full of subtle depth and dark colors.

 

 

Overall Gabriel Barre’s directing is nice, but there are a couple of really questionable staging choices he made, like when everyone freezes in place during a riot at the slave auction, that just didn’t work very well. I get that the intent is to catch our eye on specific people in the cluttered mesh of people on stage, but the freezes come out of nowhere and they rip us out of the world of the show. If they wanted us to focus on certain characters than Barre could have done that just by utilizing Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s fantastic lighting design a bit more.

 

Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are stunningly gorgeous, particularly for the women in the ballroom scene. The scenic design by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce is grand, but there are some large wooden poles that are planted in the middle of the stage for this entire production. They serve as masts for the ships scenes, but look out of place in every other scene set around them. I’m not sure that can be fixed, but it’s a minor complaint in an overall great scenic design.

 

There’s also a visually dazzling “underwater” scene that's done in mid-air that looks more like Cirque du Soleil than anything from this show. Maybe I’m just not a fan of unnecessary spectacles, especially ones where the wires are all too abundant even behind a scrim, but I will admit it was beautifully executed and had the audience applauding. The problem is that this rescue moment wasn’t totally crucial to the story. We’ll still understand that John’s been saved from drowning by Thomas simply by having Thomas pull him soaking wet onto the shores of Sierra Leon.

 

 

Amazing Grace has apparently been in development for several years, but it still feels like it’s in the early rough draft stages. How no one pointed out this show’s major flaws before deciding to invest millions in this haphazard musical is a major concern. It is not even close to being ready for a New York transfer. Fortunately no Broadway house has been announced and thank goodness because this musical will need at least a year or two more of re-writes and workshops before it’s ready to take that huge leap.

 

As idealistic as this show wants us to think it is, we have to be realistic here. The daunting fact remains that a huge majority of musicals that make it all the way to Broadway never earn a profit and close early leaving a lot of hard working people unemployed. Even without considering this show’s massive structural problems this is not an easy show to sell to begin with. Amazing Grace has no stars, a huge expensive equity cast of 32 actors, a full orchestra, grand period costumes, an enormous stage design, an unknown lyricist/composer with no professional experience or training, and a story that nobody is going to really care enough about to purchase tickets to go see in New York’s tourist pandering market. Slavery and abolitionism aren’t exactly topics that will have people lining up in droves to get tickets.

 

Bottom Line: Amazing Grace is somewhat recommended. I really respect that Amazing Grace has a lot of heart, a great originality for a musical, and that it’s a big risk, but these are the very same reasons why I want  it to succeed and why transferring to a Broadway stage would be a major mistake at this point in the show’s development. From what I saw on opening night it’s just not ready. Not yet at least. Amazing Grace is not totally unfixable though and I do think it will be ready for Broadway someday if the creative team works hard enough to fix this show’s many flaws that I’ve explained in detail above. Similar to John’s long struggle throughout this musical, Amazing Grace too will eventually find its way to its own grand awakening, but only after it has been given time to develop more.  I wish this ambitious musical well on the long treacherous voyage that it has ahead. If the creative team keeps going after the show’s underlying heart then this will eventually find its own “amazing grace”. And I sincerely hope it does.

 

Amazing Grace – Broadway in Chicago

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission

Location: The Bank of America Theatre – 18 W Monroe St, Chicago, IL, 60603

Runs through: November 2, 2014

Curtain Times: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays – 7:30 PM, Wednesdays – 2 PM & 7:30 PM, Saturdays – 2 PM & 8 PM, Sundays – 2 PM   

Tickets: $33.00 - $100.00 – A select number of premium seats are also available for many performances. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Office locations (24 W. Randolph St, 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St., and 175 E. Chestnut), by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, or by ordering online (see link above)

Group Tickets: Tickets are now available for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710.

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