I’ve heard “Amazing Grace” countless times, and not once have I thought, “This is definitely heading to Broadway.”
However, the story behind the song feels like it belongs on stage in Chicago and, eventually, New York.
One major reason for the success of Broadway in Chicago’s “Amazing Grace” is Josh Young, who received a 2014 Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Young stars as John Newton, the English author of “Amazing Grace,” but the show centers on his early years as a slave trader. As John says in justification, what kind of businessman would he be if he didn’t sell what people were buying? It’s the world we live in, and we don’t have to like it.
Yes, it’s hard to root for this guy.
It is easy, however, to root for Mary Catlett, John’s childhood friend played by Erin Mackey. Mary accidentally witnesses a slave auction—John’s first—and finds herself drawn in to the abolitionist movement. She herself was practically raised by a slave, Nanna, but never thought to ask about her background. Once Nanna shares her story of separation from her daughter, Mary becomes committed to the cause and pretends to be in love with Major Archibald Gray (Chris Hoch) in order to gain access to secret details on the slave trade. Hoch provides much needed comedy in an otherwise serious show—Mackey too gives the audience both reason to laugh and grab a tissue.
Major Gray, upset with John for losing a slave to the abolitionists, pays members of the Royal Navy to abduct the future hymnist. Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt) is brought aboard the navy’s ship to see his son, but having felt frequently embarrassed by him, sees no need to save John from five years at sea. The Newton’s slave, Thomas, asks to go with John, who gets a glimpse into the life of a slave when he receives a lynching for talking back.
The ship eventually capsizes and everyone in England believes there are no survivors. In fact, Thomas saves John, who fell overboard, by swimming after him. It is one of the show’s best scenes, an “underwater” look at the rescue brought about through effective lighting and some harnesses.
John and Thomas are captured by Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy), who has been selling her own people into slavery and uses John as ransom to receive silver from his father. John eventually decides committing suicide is the best answer, but is stopped when he finds a letter from Mary. Surviving a stormy night, John turns his life around, hoping to make amends for his horrible acts and join the quest to end slavery. Surprisingly, we don’t actually see him write his beloved song.
I can’t say whether this musical will draw people to the theater or keep them away due to its religious nature, but the audience was packed together on opening night. I do think it would be a shame to miss out on this superb cast, the highlight of the show. Young drew me in to every song, even those that weren’t very memorable, while Laiona Michelle and Chuck Cooper’s work as Nanna and Thomas left a lasting impression. And despite never seeing John sit down to write the hymn, the ensemble’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” gave me, and I suspect, due to their reaction, the audience, goosebumps.