Theater Review: Amazing Grace, Too Sweet, Unsound

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Amazing Grace Nederlander Theatre Cast List: Josh Young Erin Mackey Chuck Cooper Chris Hoch Tom Hewitt Stanley Bahorek Harriett D. Foy Laiona Michelle Rachael Ferrera Elizabeth Ward Land Production Credits: Gabriel Barre (director) Christopher Gattelli (choreography) Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce (scenic design) Toni-Leslie James (costume design) Ken Billington & Paul Miller (lighting design) Jon Weston (sound design) Kenny Seymour (orchestrations) Joseph Church (music director) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Christopher Smith Music by: Christopher Smith Book by Arthur Giron & Christopher Smith Photo: Joan Marcus

There’s a scene in Fun Home — both the book and the musical — in which a 9-year-old girl shows her father a fanciful map she’s drawn for school. As the father grows more agitated trying to correct and improve it (“This is visually confusing,” he complains), the girl grows more defensive about preserving her vision. (“This is a cartoon!”) For the audience, the scene is a wrenching demonstration of the father’s controlling nature; by the time he explodes in frustration (“You cannot do it like that unless you want to ruin it!”), you are cringing over the mistaken application of his high standards, and his insensitivity to a budding artist’s feelings. 

Welcome to my dilemma. Amazing Grace, a new musical purporting to tell the story of the 18th-century British abolitionist John Newton, is the “first work of professional writing” by Christopher Smith, a 45-year-old former police officer from suburban Philadelphia. (He wrote the music and lyrics himself and co-wrote the book with the more experienced playwright Arthur Giron.) What he has somehow gotten produced, and offered with good intentions to Broadway audiences and critics, is the equivalent of a child’s drawing: naïve, sincere, glowing with an unimpeachable if hard-to-pin-down vision of what it wants to be. (I’d guess that it wants to be a Christian family entertainment with a bold message about the power of redemption.) It is also a confusing cartoon so lacking in craft that it ruins any chance of being taken seriously. Certainly it can’t be recommended as history; it’s riddled with falsehoods that alone would sink it. But it also fails as musical theater, on two counts: the music and the theater.

The historical problem is one the show attempts to swat away as irrelevant; though it bills itself as “based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world’s most beloved song,” the authors and director (Gabriel Barre) contradictorily admit, in a program note, that they “created some characters and amalgamated some events in the timeline to focus on the themes that drew us to this amazing story.” I’ll allow that not every “true” drama must be accurate to be good. (The King and I isn’t.) But because Amazing Grace is telling a story about history (the first line is “There are moments when the waves of history converge”), it would seem to invite stricter scrutiny. The question to be considered is whether it provides a basically accurate understanding of Newton’s life and his role in the abolitionist movement. It does to the extent that the man existed, and that he worked in the slave trade for many years, then renounced it. He did marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, and write the words that, when later set to a traditional tune, became famous as the title hymn. Shall we forgive the show’s implication that Newton wrote the music, too, based on African melodies he’d heard? He did, after all, as we see in several lurid scenes set in Sierra Leone, spend some time as the captive of an African princess, and he did have a religious epiphany of some sort when the ship bringing him back nearly sank in a storm off Ireland but then didn’t.

That ought to be enough truth for one musical, but the authors were not content with it; history, for all its florid externalities, does not usually offer the coherent psychological arc that traditional narratives are said to demand. So Amazing Grace imagines one, or rather borrows several. Spoiler alert: Hothead Newton is given daddy issues, and his icy father (really just a shipmaster, but promoted here to head of the slave-trading Royal African Company) refuses to intervene when Junior is impressed by the Royal Navy. Later, having had an epiphany of his own, Daddy personally rescues Junior from that sassy African princess and dies of a gunshot wound on the way back. (The real Newton Sr. sent someone else to fetch his son and drowned two years later — in Canada.) Furthermore, Mary Catlett is now a secret abolitionist firebrand and, wouldn’t you know it, a promising soprano; asked to sing for the Prince of Wales, she instead uses the opportunity to speak truth to power. It is at this very moment that Newton returns from his travels to seal his love for Mary in song (“I can face it all if you will walk with me”) and, hey, amiright, wrap up this slavery thing forever? Cut to the happy ending, with actors of all colors (but no President Obama!) singing chorus after chorus of the title song in beautiful harmony, joined by what seemed to me to be audience plants, standing and testifying in conspicuously prominent locations.

I hate to disappoint them, but here’s another spoiler: The slave trade (let alone slavery) wasn’t abolished in England for 50 more years. And this is not the worst of the musical’s obfuscations. For all its depictions of the horrors suffered by enslaved people (we are shown an auction, several brandings, and various psychological humiliations) the drama of the black characters is almost entirely, well, subservient to that of the white ones. Newton is provided with an African-born manservant called Thomas (Chuck Cooper), and Mary an African-born nanny called Nanna (Laiona Michelle), to represent the culpability even of abolitionists in a slave-based economy. An attempt is made to dignify their presence by showing how they are betrayed by their owners: Thomas returned to slavery in Barbados, Nanna thrown in jail as part of a plot to stifle Mary’s crusade. But both are rescued by their owners, too. And though loss of personal agency may be a fundamental condition of slavery, it’s an embarrassing failure of dramaturgy that the black characters serve no purpose but to reflect the white people’s moral awakening, and to sing nicely. In its most recent revival, Porgy and Bess was heavily rewritten for less.

I’m not saying the intentions here are ignoble: quite the opposite. They are too noble, but about the wrong things. Generic religious feeling (the lead producer’s program bio helpfully reminds us that all good gifts come from heaven above) seems to have trumped moral logic — forget about narrative coherence. Even were this not so, the pileup of platitudes that passes for a script, and the boilerplate ballads given to the heroic Josh Young and Erin Mackey (as Newton and Mary), would be more than sufficient to render the material unpersuasive. That does not make it worse than many a Broadway production; Amazing Grace has the inbred silliness you might expect from an incestuous liaison between, say, Finding Neverland and Godspell. And at least the physical production is handsome. But I think it’s possible to state, without crushing the aspirations of the newbies concerned, that any musical in which the great Chuck Cooper plays a slave had better be a musical starring Chuck Cooper as a slave. Black characters (and black actors) should not at this point be entering stories about black suffering through back doors. 

Amazing Grace is at the Nederlander Theatre.