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Bank of America Theatre. Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith. Book by Smith and Arthur Giron. Directed by Gabriel Barre. With Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Tom Hewitt, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch, Laiona Michelle. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
"Amazing" isn't the right adjective, not yet anyway, for this big new musical with Broadway intentions. "Ambitious" applies, certainly, but unfortunately "adequate" or "acceptable" would also work.
The tuner tells a portion of the life story of John Newton, the English slave trader turned abolitionist who went on to become an Anglican cleric and wrote a trove of hymns, including "Amazing Grace." As presented here, John (Tony nominee Josh Young) is a kind of prodigal son who's rejected both God and family since the death of his mother; his father consigns him to impressment in the Royal Navy, while his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) wonders what happened to the sweet boy who once wrote songs for her.
John nearly drowns in a shipwreck off the coast of West Africa, but is rescued by his longtime slave Thomas (Chuck Cooper); the two are then captured by a sadistic tribal princess (Harriett D. Foy) who's teamed up with the French and profits off selling her own people into slavery. John then becomes her slave—a plot point that'd be far too on-the-nose if it hadn't actually happened. While John is away at sea and later presumed dead, Mary is back home finding her own path into the nascent abolitionist movement while fighting off the advances of a smarmy army officer (Chris Hoch).
The piece is the brainchild of composer-lyricist Christopher Smith, a self-taught newcomer to musical theater. His score is competent, if not too memorable, and director Gabriel Barre's production is visually rather impressive, with massive Eugene Lee sets and lush costume designs by Toni-Leslie James. What Smith, Barre and book co-writer Arthur Giron need to work on is their story's emotional arc.
Young and Mackey are fiercely charismatic leads with strong chemistry, but the show's current structure keeps them in separate storylines for most of the evening. The creators need to find more ways to put them onstage at the same time.
And Young's Newton suffers from the same problem as the lead of this year's other seafaring Broadway tryout at the Bank of America Theatre, Sting and John Logan's The Last Ship: He's a rebel without a cause. We need a greater sense of what's made him so different from the boy Mary loved in order to properly care about the epiphany that saved a wretch like he.