‘Amazing Grace’ Offers Moving Summer Theater

4.212678Sorry, folks. I’ve been slacking a little on the blog front after getting distracted by some poetry writing (a good distraction, of course). But I promise to get back into the swing of things this month.

I’ve been meaning to write about Amazing Grace, a new Broadway musical based on the life of slave-trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton. (He’s also the author of the timeless song of the same name.) The show is centered around Newton’s gruesome exploitation of African men, women and children, who he sells for profit in his family’s business in London, and his literal come-to-Jesus moment spurred by his friendship with his own life-long servant.

When I saw it during a Sunday matinee a couple weeks ago, I was thoroughly moved by the sheer power of the voices on that stage. Newton is played by the extraordinary Josh Young, who some might remember from Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s joined by the lovely Erin Mackey, who plays Newton’s love interest and another catalyst to draw him away from the slave trade.

But the real vocal star is Laiona Michelle in her role as Mary Catlett’s servant. Her eleventh hour ballad set while she’s locked away in jail pining for a daughter sold away as a slave brought the audience to cheers, and tears.

Overall, the show features some beautiful and gut-wrenching moments, including an early scene of Newton pulling women and children from cages, branding them with hot irons, and auctioning them off. The show succeeds at depicting a terrible episode in our human story: How fellow human beings could treat other humans this way is a crucial question in this show.

But as a piece of musical theater, I found the show lacking. First-time song writer Christopher Smith does a serviceable job, but sadly too many of the songs begin to sound the same: either we’re given a jaunty British march or a ballad with a high belt. Too many of the scenes also fail to push the story along, the theater version of running in place.

By the time we reach the climax, though, which of course is the title song of the show, “Amazing Grace,” you’ve witnessed a moving transformation of a man determined to fix one of society’s horrible wrongs. The day I saw it, the audience leapt to their feet to sing the words to the timeless, moving tune. (Take me to church!) I cried. And somehow it made all the show’s missteps better.

Summer theater tends to be a little slow in NYC. So if you’re looking for a cheap ticket (and cheap tickets to this show can be found) to a decent time at the theater, this is a pretty good bet.

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