Surefire stories don’t write themselves. That’s the take-away from Amazing Grace, the epically bad show that opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre. The timing certainly couldn’t be better, as Americans continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery as if there were two sides to the argument. But the show has an impossible standard against which it must be measured, and that is, of course, the song that is its subject. If you’re going to make a musical about one of the best-known and most-loved songs of all time, you’d better be equal to the task. That, fundamentally, is not the case with the this earnest but cringe-inducing freshman effort by composer-lyricist Christopher Smith.
The story of “Amazing Grace” — the hymn — isn’t an American one; its milieu is the English seaport town of Chatham, where ships loaded with human cargo were dispatched to slave markets. The time is the 1740s, and feckless young John Newton (Josh Young) is determined to prove his mettle to his demanding father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), whose shipping business relies heavily on the human goods from the African continent. Wishing also to show his intended, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), that he’s ready to get serious about growing up, he spends the opening scene auctioning off the latest shipment as Mary watches in disbelief.
This scene, in which a group of black actors in African rags is rolled onstage in a cramped cage and pulled above, one by one, to be sold to the highest bidder, is difficult to view — for all the wrong reasons. The artless naturalism made me wonder about the actors’ discomfort, about how they felt about “enacting”misery, about many things that distanced me from the story. Instead of striking the gut or the heart, it strikes the intellect. It was impossible to be shocked.
Newton, accompanied by Thomas (Chuck Cooper), the wise, kindly slave who has raised him, becomes himself a master slaver, to the growing horror of Mary, who has secretly joined the outlawed abolitionists. Shipwrecked by a storm, John is briefly captured and is himself enslaved by an African Princess (Harriet D. Foy) with a retinue of swaying female dancers and a nose for enterprise. The songs that push the story forward are forgettable at best and banal, pale echoes of themes recognizable from Lloyd Webber and Boublil/Schoenberg. All the principal actors, and particularly Mackey and Cooper, have gorgeous voices.
We long for the epiphany that will open John Newton’s eyes, herald the song we’ve been promised, and conclude what has become a litany of dastardly doings. If, however, Arthur Giron’s book is to be believed, Newton’s revelation will come not as the result of his exposure to the crime of slavery, but to his survival of yet another storm and reconciliation with the Captain. (There are some nifty special effects by Jeremy Chernick.)
Only when he is safely home and reunited with the near-dead Thomas, does he change his view of marketing people. Why, we never know. It’s the singular irony of Amazing Grace that a song so identified with a slave trader had noting to do with slavery. Irony, however, has no place in Amazing Grace. We’re told plenty about John Newton in Gabriel Barre’s by-the-numbers production, but we learn almost nothing.
Finally, however, we do get what we’ve paid for: that sinuous melody, those elegantly simple words. The closing scene is as powerful as it is predictable, as the hymn builds to its climax, sung by the entire company (and many in the audience). Everything that has come before is instantly forgotten.