Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not So 'Amazing Grace' Fails to Save Its Wretch of a Protagonist -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Amazing Grace
A Pre-Broadway World Premiere Musical
Music, Lyrics & (co-)Book by Christopher Smith
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago

I am certainly no authority on who deserves "to be saved."

But so morally suspect--at least in retrospect--was the early life of an Englishman named John Newton, a longtime slave trader, that it corrupted my regard for and interest in his eventual and rather abrupt salvation late in Amazing Grace, a new musical ostensibly about the famous hymn Newton wrote in 1782.

Imagine if Irving Berlin had slaughtered Native Americans for years before he wound up writing "God Bless America." I'm not sure I'd really enjoy sitting through a musical biography of his ugly backstory just to have it culminate in his iconic tune.

Which isn't to imply that Amazing Grace doesn't have any musical merits, although it is not in any way an acute examination of how "Amazing Grace"--technically just the opening phrase of a hymn called "Faith's Review and Expectation" (per Wikipedia)--came to be conceived and composed. Rather it spends 2-1/2 hours focusing on Newton, his father, a female interest named Mary Catlett, a bizarre love triangle and oh, yeah, slave trading (with Newton repeatedly noting he was just "a businessman").

To be fair to composer/lyricist Christopher Smith, who also co-wrote the book with Arthur Giron, many in the audience seemed to like the show considerably more than I did, and I couldn't help but be impressed with several of the songs.

With Broadway vets Josh Young and Erin Mackey making for a beautiful pair of leads with glorious voices--this World Premiere is theoretically headed to Broadway, so the cast is terrific--tunes such as "Truly Alive," "Here's to You," "A Chance for Me" and others are stellar enough that I imagine if I simply heard an eventual cast recording, I would find it rather engaging, maybe even delightful.

Under Gabriel Barre's direction, the staging is inventive with impressive sets designed by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce.

The 18th century costumes--by Toni-Leslie James--were also quite striking in their own right, but though my "best musical ever" affinity for Les Miserables suggests no innate aversion to period pieces, something about sailors of yore (much of Amazing Grace takes place on and around boats) just added to its not resonating with me in the here and now.

To try to elaborate on why I didn't like Amazing Grace would wind up rather convoluted, if only in trying to explain that a piece about a (mostly) bad person doesn't inherently make the creative work (mostly) bad. Some of the most compelling stories in history are those of sin and redemption.

But from early in Act I, when Newton was spearheading the auctioning and mistreatment of slaves, to deep into Act II, when despite a number of travails including being held captive, the protagonist remained a petulant asshole, I found the whole thing rather off-putting.

I think I followed what was going on rather well, including with the Mary character (a clandestinely rebellious abolitionist), the malevolent Major Archibald Gray (played by Chris Hoch) who tries to romance her, Newton's callous ex-seafaring father (Tom Hewitt) and a former slave of Newton's named Thomas (Chuck Cooper), but the whole thing--such as in juxtaposing slavery with a Titanic-like love triangle--far too slight and trite in its examination of one of history's greatest wrongs.

And besides the parts of Amazing Grace I really didn't like, most of the rest--including the pre-answered question about whether Newton would find salvation--I just didn't much care about.

Although I often say an abundance of strong songs is the key to a first-rate musical, despite the inclusion of several here, they just seemed too slow in arriving, with far too much exposition in between.

Distaste is hard to explain, and I would do poorly in trying to debate anyone who greatly enjoyed Amazing Grace.

But some shows you just love, perhaps without acutely knowing why, and some shows you really just don't.

With due respect to the talented cast, composers and others involved, Amazing Grace is one of the latter for

So when the title song was finally sung at the end of the show, repeatedly--my suggestion would to also begin with it and tell Newton's story in flashback--it was far too late to save a wretch like me.

I found myself happy just to leave the theater and go home.

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