Music and Lyrics by Christopher Smith
Book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Nederlander Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Amazing Grace is highly unusual in that, if you put aside perfect rhyme (which it honors only most of the time), and subtext (which it has not at all), it’s a musical written with not much more than base-level competence, that nonetheless manages to hit its marks with the audience, or at least the audience it seems intended for. Written by Christopher Smith (concept, co-book, music, lyrics) and Arthur Giron (co-book), it tells the story behind the creation of the hymn referenced in the title; said story being that of John Newton (Josh Young), an 18th century British slave trader who, over the course of time and fantastic adventure, learns the error of his ways, embraces the light and becomes one of the foremost proponents of the abolitionist movement. Everything about it hews to a formulaic neatness that the character roster plainly delineates: the flawed hero who must earn salvation; the woman who loves him, naturally named Mary (Erin Mackey), who must protect him while secretly having joined the abolitionist movement; the loyal black slave Nanna (Laiona Michelle) who raised her, the loyal black slave butler Thomas (Chuck Cooper), both of whom become pawns in a power game; Newton’s disapproving father (Tom Hewitt) who must mend his own ways before coming to grips with his rebellious son; and two perfect heavies: on British shores, the unctuous and ambitious Major Gray (Chris Hoch), who would hope to court our hero’s girl; and Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), an African tribal leader who has herself become a powerful slave broker. And rather like the more accomplished, less schematic (well, less transparently schematic) Philemon (the arguably best and arguably most obscure work in the canon of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt), Amazing Grace is also the Christian musical that dare not speak its name.

            Its music is foursquare and unoriginal, but conversant with the standard musical theatre energies for its various moods; its lyrics are similarly no better and no worse than sufficient unto the task. And it's all directed with a similar neatness—expertly paced, roles sharply defined, on a highly attractive set, with excellent costumes, technically impeccable—yet at the same time only inspired up to the point of stagecraft efficiency—by Gabriel Barre.

            How Amazing Grace sits with you may depend on how easily you succumb to by-the-numbers narrative manipulation as well as how distracted you are by details that are out of sync. For example: At one point in the story, John Newton has been unwillingly pressed into service on a slaver ship. After being insubordinate once too often, he is sentenced to thirty lashes, his arms pulled taut by ropes bound to his wrists; he’s facing us, stripped to the waist. Now, this being a musical of a certain stripe (pun intended), one can understand why blood isn’t flying as the lash “hits” its mark. But actor Josh Young barely seems to register pain at all, as if the lash is a nuisance more than anything else; and his recovery is barely a blip on the radar; he’s back in action with no residual ill-effects, perhaps not within literal minutes, but without even a one-line suggestion of healing time having passed.

            Now…do you have any idea how much damage gets done by thirty lashes with a whip? That’s not just a spanking with a leather strap; that’s a flaying by what is, essentially, a flying, flexible razor. Ten lashes is extreme. And this isn’t the only example in Amazing Grace of violence or pain being given a gentle glossover. I’m not talking about historical accuracy vs. dramatic license; I’m talking about levels of verisimilitude. Is it laziness? This stuff isn’t hard to research, nor is it hard to adjust the stage action and dialogue to reflect what's being presented one way or the other. Combine lapses like this with the formulaic narrative and you do have to wonder how true the true story is. Not to mention something else:

            Amazing Grace would have you believe (solely by implication, it’s never articulated in the text) that John Newton created the melody for his lyric to the famous hymn, out of a plaintive African folk song he heard in his travels, that opens with the intervals of the familiar tune. (We hear it too, all through the show; but at no point is a  direct connection articulated.)

            In fact, the lyric was co-written by William Cowper (who does not appear in the musical), had over 20 tunes attached to it, and the one we now associate as definitive was not written by Newton, nor was it applied until lomg after his death. It was a popular tune without known authorship, called “New Britiain”, adapted to the verses by a composer named William Walker.

            That John Newton’s life and conversion has been re-fashioned into an adventure parable is not really an issue; neither The King and I nor Evita are much more accurate. But that it’s a story made up around historical distortion, meant to function as a testament to the power of faith and spirituality is something to think about. From my POV, it seems a strategy unsettlingly close to  recruitment tactics, and  I'm not altogether comfortable with that infiltrating mainstream musical theatre.

            Of course, there is the aforementioned Philemon, about a Christian martyr, and that one's among my favorites. How to explain the contradiction? Well, I guess  one can start with this: in every conceivable way, it's just better… (And for more on that one, click here.)

            Funny how sometimes better is all the validation you need to make the objectionable acceptable…

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