There’s an old theater saying that goes something like this: If you have a strong ending, they’ll forgive anything that’s preceded it.
Amazing Grace, on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, has as strong a finish as any musical in recent or distant memory. The beloved title hymn is delivered in a stunning vocal arrangement by Joseph Church and as staged by director Gabriel Barre. This glorious rendition is further enhanced as a result of the production’s expert casting for voices in every major and minor role.
The finale is such a wowser-dowser that after the curtain call the cast reprises it and encourages the audience to sing along. Of course, audience members, mostly already on their feet (as is the tradition nowadays), join in lustily. So the show has that strong, gale-wind force of a closer, but is it enough to forgive what’s gone before? With little reluctance, I have to say there isn’t.
Since the musical drama is called Amazing Grace, it’s a sure bet that the song, by evangelical Anglican John Newton (which we’re told was completed in 1772, but accounts differ) will be heard. The book, by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, with a supplementary score by Smith, is about how Newton came to write the lyrics — but pointedly not the melody, the origin of which is unknown. So it’s another safe bet that in the context of the show, once the cleric-lyricist supplies the words, Amazing Grace will be over.
But audiences are required to sit through two dubious acts before being so rewarded. Why dubious? Because the show, as a program note confides, has “created some characters and amalgamated some events.” This “based-on-a-true-story“ approach raises questions about the veracity of the tale, which opens in 1744 when slave owner/trader Newton (Josh Young) pens “Amazing Grace” following a few shipwrecks — the second of which occurs after he’s freed from a French slave-trading stronghold run by an African princess. Into this plot are woven Newton’s real-life lady-love and eventual wife, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), and a slave, Thomas (Chuck Cooper), who Newton treats well until he doesn’t.
It may well be that Thomas — who calls himself Pakutch — existed. It may well be that suitor-for-Mary’s-hand Chris Hoch figured into all this, too. It may further be that Newton’s demanding father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), and lash-happy Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), were every bit as presented here. But they all seem ratcheted up as if in a 19th century melodrama — The Black Crook, say. The Captain may as well be outfitted with a mustache to twirl.
And yet, I repeat that when the cast members warble, they sound wonderful. Young is encouraged to sustain the final notes of his numbers as long as he can, and boy-o! — what it does for their effect and reception. Mackey’s soprano is, as always, clear and pure. Hewitt rings out mightily when asked. Mary’s servant Nanna is played and sung with dignity by Laiona Michelle. And no one who’s seen Cooper, on Broadway or off, has to be told how he commands the stage. When Cooper delivers his big number, not a few patrons might wish he were singing “Ol’ Man River” instead.
As a matter of committed opinion, the single scene in Amazing Grace that has the power of genuine drama is when Thomas/Pakutch is reunited with Newton after having been betrayed by him earlier. The flash in Cooper’s eyes when insisting he can’t forgive Newton is the the supreme acting moment of the production.
With all the congrats handed out on the quality of the singing, the next topic has to become the quality of Smith’s songs. Not one can hold a candle to Newton’s contribution. The prosaic rhyming is careless, the tunes Les Miserables-generic, and the emotions fall far short of what is needed for the characters to express themselves as they must.
There was a point after Mary Catlett importunes God, in a song called “Tell Me Why,” when it seemed that Smith’s chief accomplishment was to make each number worse than the one that preceded it. Whether he was right to provide a rhyming-couplet slave-auction ditty is certainly questionable.
The ship-motif set is by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, the costumes are by Toni-Leslie James, the lighting is by Ken Billington and Paul Miller, the sound is by Jon Weston, and it’s all more than serviceable. (The lights and sound do go to town during the shipwrecks.) Christopher Gattelli choreographs with imagination, although a stylized tribal dance routine for the islanders could hit some the wrong way.
Song lovers who know their Irving Berlin lore will recall the oft-repeated story that he didn’t write his songs but had a shoeshine boy who did. Curiously, something akin to that rumor surfaces in Amazing Grace. During the show, a young female slave — one separated years before from Nanna — plays a lilting tune on a recorder that is similar to the “”Amazing Grace” melody. The suggestion appears to be that it was a slave who influenced a song we’re still singing 243 years later. That sly hint could have been the musical’s most intriguing facet.