Under the Direction of
James M. Nederlander and James L. Nederlander
Dena Hammerstein, Roy Gabay, Rich Entertainment Group
Josh Young and Erin Mackey
(Amazing Grace Website)
Music & Lyrics by Christopher Smith
Book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron
208 West 41st Street
New York, NY
Tom Hewitt, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch
Stanley Bahorek, Harriet D. Foy, Laiona Michelle
Rachael Ferrera, Elizabeth Ward Land
And an ensemble of singers/actors/dancers
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Music Direction, Arrangements, Incidental Music: Joseph Church
Orchestrations: Kenny Seymour
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Scenic Design: Eugene Lee, Edward Pierce
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Ken Billington & Paul Miller
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Hair Design: Robert Charles Vallance
Fight & Military Movement: David Leong
Casting: McCorkle Casting Ltd.
Dialect Coach: Gillian Lane-Plescia
Production Stage Manager: Paul J. Smith
General Management: Marshall B. Purdy
Company Manager: Chris Aniello
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Marketing & Social Media: The Pekoe Group
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
July 21, 2015
The new musical, Amazing Grace, a show business debut for lyricist and composer, Christopher Smith, is based on the 18th century life of English-born, John Newton, who composed the title song, so renowned as a hymn for peace and remembrance. Mr. Newton, whose family became wealthy from the African slave trade, is portrayed as fully transforming, in a moral journey, from cruel and capitalistic to remorseful and righteous. This is a tale that needs to be revealed and shared with audiences, especially in light of current kidnappings of girls abroad, for use as slaves, yes, in 2015. This is a tale of Mr. Newton (Josh Young) and his beloved Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), along with their own beloved servants (actually slaves), Thomas, formerly named Pakuteh (Chuck Cooper) and Nanna (Laiona Michelle). Mary and Nanna adore each other, and Nanna eventually tells her of her daughter, Yema, who was taken as a slave in Africa, when Nanna was sent to England. Likewise, John and Thomas are close emotionally, and Thomas reveals his former African name, only after he almost loses his life, a gut-wrenching scene in Sierra Leone, under the demonic control of Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy), who reaps the rewards of slave trade, as well.
A subplot includes a wealthy, regal suitor of Mary, Major Gray (Chris Hoch), who manipulates John Newton’s fate. Also manipulating his own son’s fate is Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), the owner of Royal Africa Company, who risks his life, in an effort to save his son. Additional characters are Yema, Nanna’s enslaved daughter (Rachael Ferrera), Mrs. Catlett (Elizabeth Ward Land), Mary’s conniving mother, and Robert Haweis (Stanley Bahorek), Newton’s English friend. The development of the book involves excruciatingly violent imagery, evocative of the recently doomed show, Doctor Zhivago. The lengthy scenes of slaves in crates, slaves and Newton being branded by irons, Thomas being tortured by heavy chains, Princess Peyai’s sadistic retaliations, and more, are all many minutes too long, as if to brand the audience in the gripping horror. One mesmerizing scene, thanks to Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s special effects, portrays Newton’s ship sinking, upon an attack by the French, with watery waves and characters sinking down, head first. Yet, the action shifts from Mary’s romantic duets with Newton (“Someone Who Hears”) to Mary’s activist songs, as she becomes an abolitionist, joining a secret society and infiltrating Major Gray’s realm. The show’s gestalt becomes dizzy, heavy-handed, and distracting, even irritating. Unfortunately, the music and lyrics, by Christopher Smith, in his musical career debut, are elementary, overly simplified, with melodies that evoke television advertisements.
But, on the fortunate side, some luminous voices appear, and suddenly make the moment meaningful. Erin Mackey has commanding and compelling vocal talent, and her acting is accomplished as well. Josh Young’s voice is powerful (“I Will Remember”), but not as warm and tonally pure. Not helping his character’s persona was the scene in which his loyal servant, Thomas, is handed to punishment on the ship, as Newton seethingly guzzles from a flask. His then sudden change of heart about slavery, in order to win Mary back again, is barely credible. Mr. Cooper, as Thomas, is astounding and spellbinding, as are Ms. Michelle as Nanna and Ms. Ferrera as Yema (“Yema’s Song”). This is a trio of master artists. Mr. Cooper is renowned, with a stunning, deep tone (“Nowhere Left to Run”), and I look forward to seeing Ms. Michelle and Ms. Ferrera again soon, in their next venture. Mr. Hock is persuasive as the sniveling, controlling Major Gray, and Mr. Hewitt had heroic spotlights as Newton’s father, who also changed his mind with a change of heart. Ms. Foy was dynamic and magnetic in Toni-Leslie James’ African costumes, as was the ensemble (“Welcome Song”).
Lighting and sound were especially brilliant in the ship’s explosion and in the “Rule Britannia”, aristocratic scenes. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography was most propulsive in the Plantain Island, Sierra Leone arrival, and most refined in The Great Hall, Chatham. Joseph Church kept his Orchestra as melodic as the tunes allowed. Yet, at the finale, the cast thankfully sang Newton’s “Amazing Grace”, with the audience chiming in. Now, this tune was gorgeous.