Chicago Theater Review: AMAZING GRACE (Pre-Broadway World Premiere at Bank of America Theatre)

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by Barnaby Hughes on October 20, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

GRACE TO THE FINISH

John Newton (1725-1807) was many things: a slave trader, a sailor and a clergyman. Yet today he is chiefly remembered as the author of “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most well-known and beloved of English hymns. In the new musical Amazing Grace, Christopher Smith (book, music, and lyrics) and co-librettist Arthur Giron tell the story of Newton’s early life, of how he once was lost at sea, then found and redeemed by his father; of how he was blind to the evils of slavery, then learned to see the innate dignity in every human being.

(center) Chris Hoch, Erin Mackey, and the ensemble in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In other words, Smith isn’t really telling the story of how the hymn was written, but the story of the man who wrote it, interpreting Newton’s biography through the Parable of the Prodigal Son, quoted in the hymn.

AChuck Cooper, Josh Young, and the ensemble in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This world premiere production of Amazing Grace at Bank of America Theatre is an impressive show that hits all the right notes. It’s dramatic and funny, beautifully designed and creatively staged, with an excellent cast and memorable music.

Erin Mackey, Josh young, and the ensemble in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Director Gabriel Barre uses up every last inch of stage space and minute of performance time, vividly transporting the audience back to an age when slavery and empire went hand in hand. The show tends to get a little jingoistic at times, even to the point of discomfort, but its religious themes are treated rather lightly and in a way that couldn’t possibly offend anyone. There’s even a rabbi thrown in for balance.

Harriet D. Foy and Josh Young in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Although there is much to commend in this show, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is particularly notable, especially for the breathtaking underwater scene that sees John Newton slowly sink down before his servant Thomas rescues him. Gattelli is ably assisted by Shanna Vanderwerker’s associate choreography and David Leong’s fight and military movement.

Josh Young and Erin Mackey star in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s magnificent sets range from slave market and jungle to ship deck and drawing room, with masts doubling as trees. Toni-Leslie James clothes the show’s African and British characters, including sailors, soldiers, savages and slaves: The ladies’ embroidered gowns are veritable works of art as are the African headdresses. John Weston’s sound and Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s lighting manage to convey a number of special effects, such as naval battles, storms, and shipwrecks, making Amazing Grace quite an action-filled spectacle.

Josh Young, Tom Hewitt, and the ensemble in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Josh Young and Erin Mackey play the handsome, likeable couple at the center of the story, John Newton and Mary Catlett. Although they’re obviously in love throughout, they don’t finally come together until the very end. Meanwhile, Mary is courted by Major Gray, played with perfect priggishness by Chris Hoch. Young, as might be expected, gets more singing moments than any other character, and he uses them to display his warm baritone to full advantage. Smith’s music tends to be through-composed rather than standalone songs, with the possible exception of “I Still Believe,” lyrically and movingly sung by Mackey.

Laiona Michelle and Erin Mackey in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Whereas the British characters in Amazing Grace tend to be more complex, oscillating between despicable and admirable, the African characters come across as one-sidedly noble. Chuck Cooper as Newton’s servant Thomas and Laiona Michelle as Catlett’s servant Nanna both offer themselves as willing victims, Thomas to save Newton and Nanna for the abolitionist cause. Cooper’s excellent acting and powerful bass come closely to stealing Young’s spotlight. When he sings “Nowhere Left to Run,” the audience is absolutely convinced.

Rachael Ferrera, Erin Mackey (seated), Laiona Michelle, and the ensemble in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The production’s fine cast is rounded out by Tom Hewitt as John’s father Captain Newton, Stanley Bahorek as Robert Haweis, Harriett D. Foy as the slave-selling Princess Peyai, and dozens of ensemble members. Joseph Church’s music direction, arrangements, and incidental music propel the performance forward with plenty of brass and drums as well as the occasional echo of “Amazing Grace.” Appropriately enough, this pre-Broadway musical ends with the whole cast singing Newton’s hymn. Christopher Smith’s ambitious musical succeeds beyond measure.

Josh Young and Erin Mackey in AMAZING GRACE, the pre-Broadway production in Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.photos by Joan Marcus

Amazing Grace
Bank of America Theatre
18 West Monroe Street
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 8;
Wed, Sat, & Sun at 2
scheduled to end on November 2, 2014
for tickets, call (800) 775-2000
or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com
also visit www.amazinggracemusical.com

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Colleen October 21, 2014 at 5:39 am

I must echo Barnaby’s complimentary review of this production. The vocals, costumes, and choreography were astounding; the under-water scrim scene received immediate applause by an adoring and mesmerized audience. To quote the lady with whom I had a conversation during intermission, “I didn’t expect to like it so much!”

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