Chicago Theatre Review
How Sweet the Sound
Amazing Grace – Broadway in Chicago
Chicago’s become the go-to town for preBroadway tryouts. In this new, much-hyped Broadway bound world premier, with music and lyrics by Christopher Smith (in a remarkably smooth first professional endeavor) and a book co-authored by Smith and Arthur Giron, we discover a story of love, the 18th century slavery trade, sin and redemption and a major, 11th hour turnabout for its central character. The show advertises itself to be about “the song the world knows, the story it doesn’t;” the problem is that this spectacular, exhilarating, entertaining new musical seems to have somewhat overlooked that claim.
This production is visually stunning. Smith’s story begins in and moves around various locations in Chatham, England in 1744, but soon finds itself aboard different sailing ships. Thanks to the artistry and versatile scenic designs provided by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, we travel seamlessly to Plantain Island in Sierra Leone, to a port in Barbados and even, in one heart-stopping scene, beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s lighting, along with John Weston’s sound design, enhances these locales and provides the dramatic atmosphere behind a military attack and a storm at sea. Robert-Charles Vallance’s hair and wig creations and Toni-Leslie James‘ richly elegant, sumptuously detailed costumes, especially those designed for the scenes at court, look like they’ve been lifted from the exhibits in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Everything about the look of this production is first-class.
A truly impressive cast is led by a handful of Broadway veterans, a few recently accoladed topnotch actor/singers and an ensemble of talented performers, for whom this will be their Broadway debut. Josh Young (so spectacular as Che in the National Tour of “Evita”) stars as John Newton, the son of a strict merchant ship commander (played with talent, style and drive by Broadway star, Tom Hewitt). He brings his boundless charisma, athletic good looks and magnificent bari-tenor voice to the role of the “infidel and libertine” who, initially without much religious conviction, survives a series of dramatic, events that result in his “great deliverance.” He eventually marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, who has lent her support to the abolition of slavery in England (played with beauty, dignity and gorgeous voice by Erin Mackey).
Newton’s manservant and father figure Thomas is played by the brilliant New York actor/singer Chuck Cooper, offering one the production’s most moving performances. Mr. Cooper’s profound “Nowhere to Run” expresses with earnestness everything his character has felt and experienced. He’s matched in perfection by Laiona Michelle’s heartbreaking portrayal of Mary’s personal servant, Nanna. Her performances of “Yema’s Song” and “Daybreak” provide an emotional through-line for the heartbreak that slavery engendered. Harriett D. Foy is powerful and impressive as the opportunistic Sierra Leone slave-trader, Princess Peyai. The show’s ensemble are a hardworking crew of performers who create all the musical’s supporting characters and meld with Joseph Church’s accomplished 12-member pit orchestra to create the show’s glorious harmonies.
Christopher Smith’s score is a varied and stirring collection of musical styles, beginning with a rousing seafaring anthem, “Truly Alive,” later offering a number of character songs (“Never”), plot-driven melodies (“We Are Determined”) and heartfelt ballads (“I Still Believe”) leading to the African-inspired “Hoon Kay-ay.” Among the show’s more familiar tunes are “Rule Britannia” and finally, the most inspirationally sung performance ever heard of “Amazing Grace,” as performed by the entire cast.
It’s this song, which seems to come out of nowhere, that poses the problem. The musical promises to showcase how John Newton became inspired to write the famous hymn. It’s almost as if a scene has been left out. The musical depicts an array of harrowing, dramatic events that no one can deny would be considered life-changing. What’s missing, however, is that particular spark, that crucial moment when the audience sees Newton finding his spiritual foundation and becoming inspired to write “Amazing Grace.” This universally-loved hymn, which the audience has been waiting to hear seems, at this stage, to be tacked onto the end of the musical, almost as an afterthought. With so many sweet sounds and moving performances emanating from this production, the promise of the entire story behind the hymn is missing.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 19-November 2 by Broadway in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 and by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.