Of all possible reactions you can have to Amazing Grace, the one thing you can’t say is that it doesn’t give you a lot to chew on.
Unfortunately, it’s overwhelming to a fault. My show-date, Courtney, made an astute observation when she turned to me at intermission and said, “this is A LOT.”
I have smart friends. Just sayin’...
Now open at the Nederlander Theatre, Amazing Grace is the type of musical that you wish reined itself in every now and then, given the serious subject matter (slavery and slave-trading). Not even five or six minutes into the musical, a cage of slaves is rolled out and several of them are auctioned off and branded before a huge gun-fight and pandemonium occurs.
And then things really start to get insane.
But in a weird, messed up way, it is not a musical revolving around slavery, at least from the POC’s point-of-view (which the story was damn-near BEGGING for). You see, John Newton wrote the famous title hymn after a several-year long experience spanning his stint in slave-trafficking, followed by getting shuffled off to the navy where he was eventually captured and kinda “enslaved” on enemy soil and…yeah. John also has a love interest, Mary Catlett, from back home who plays “he loves me, he loves me not” until she aligns herself with an underground anti-slavery group.
While I don’t doubt the accuracy of the story, as ludicrous as it occasionally gets, the bridge between John’s story and how “Amazing Grace” is written is…well, a bridge too far. It is in the thematic ballpark in a “squint your eyes/ears” kind of way - John’s perspective on faith and humanity would change in light of such an experience - but given that Newton wrote the song months after the story happens, the direct relationship is on the vague side. The audience is also fed such try-hard attempts to connect the two, which doesn't help their cause.
What makes matters even more baffling is that other then an initial mention of the song and then the segue way to the epilogue at the end (where the ensemble sings “Amazing Grace,” natch), there is no additional mention of the song anywhere. Nothing. No "wink and a nod" or quote or anything. The song's inclusion at the end is just...there. Makes perfect sense. Oh, Broadway...
But the biggest “Oh, Broadway” moments however have to do when the show goes all "FUCK SUBTLETY” because various signage that pops up include illustrious gems like “SLAVES FOR SALE” and “this is NEGROLAND.” If I saw these signs out of context, I would of guessed they were for parody purposes. As it turns out, nope! They were just unintentionally hilarious and WAY off-center, but I digress...
I can only cut Arthur Giron and Christopher Smith’s book so much slack given it tries to tell a compelling story (or five), but I left with the impression that the audience is being told a white-washed story. But that could just be me, as I’m more then over this whole, “entitled white dude with an artist’s sensibility and rich white lady learn about the HORRORS of slavery and racism, so let’s follow their journeys as they bring about CHANGE” sorta thing. Of course, this being Broadway, they have a portion of the book devoted to John feuding with his father and- I’m sorry, I ran out of fucks to give way back when. After the attempts at SHOCK schlock, the story detours to dullsville pretty fast (so, like, why do we care about any of the characters?).
Just about the only interest conjured up in the story is when Mary goes undercover for the benefit of the anti-slavery group and the series of scenes involving the Princess who captures John. For a period piece (mid-18th Century), the female characters could have been relegated to “just there” status, but it was nice to see them carve out a portion of the show as their own. And Harriett D. Foy’s Princess, acting all cutthroat and toting weapons like a BOSS, is fun/scary to watch in a, “how far will she go?” sort of way.
Smith’s score isn’t exactly noteworthy either. A few of the orchestrations land - especially in the show’s opener, “Truly Alive” - but the best part of the score was the fact it was being sung by the vocally mind-blowing Josh Young and Erin Mackey. So well-sung are these two titans, everything else temporarily does not matter when they have the mic. Unfortunately, they are only tasked with sing-distracting for so often and Amazing Grace's overall lackluster quality can only be ignored for minutes (if not seconds) at a time.
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times