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Amazing Grace: Theater review by David Cote
In 18th-century England, the scion of a slave-trading family works in the business for years, then has a crisis of conscience, repudiates the evil practice and becomes a man of God and an ardent abolitionist. Later in life, he writes the lyrics to the classic (and royalty-free) hymn “Amazing Grace.” Could be the basis of a rich historical drama about sin and redemption, right? Sadly, a complete showbiz neophyte decided to turn it into a Les Miz–style melodrama, and the crude result has been buffed to a high sheen by a talented cast and crew with $16 million at their disposal. If only some of that filthy lucre had gone to script doctors and ghostwriters instead.
Newcomer Christopher Smith, formerly a suburban Philadelphia police officer, is clearly inspired by the story of John Newton, the aforementioned sailor who turned away from human trafficking and toward God. But he and book cowriter Arthur Giron deliver little more than a clunky period piece broken up by bombastic, generic anthems. We know how this story will end (it’s the title!), so a great deal of time is spent watching the suffering of abducted Africans and the posturing of English caricatures. As Newton, Josh Young has a sterling, ringing tenor, but his character is annoyingly passive and shrill. The majestic Chuck Cooper brings every ounce of humor and dignity to bear on his invented role, the servant Thomas, steering it a hairsbreadth away from Magical Negro territory.
Amazing Grace may be based on historical persons and events, but but in this case, truth is more compelling than fiction. Newton did have a religious awakening in 1748 but only left the slave trade in 1754, after a debilitating stroke. He didn’t get around to publicly condemning slavery until decades later. Such complexities are, not surprisingly, thrown overboard in favor of cheap piety and sentimental expediency.
Personally, I expect poetic license in the theater, but I expect it to serve a strong artistic or political vision. Amazing Grace has neither. It comes out strongly against slavery; well done. But as with the recent, equally dismal, Doctor Zhivago, Grace proves that folks are willing to burn piles of money trying to resurrect the 1980s-style megamusical. At best, the piece might move audiences to sympathetic tears, but in the end, it’s preaching to the choir.
Nederlander Theatre (Broadway). Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith. Book by Smith and Arthur Giron. Directed by Gabriel Barre. With Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Chuck Cooper. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote