By Steve Babyak
Set in the 1700s in England, Amazing Grace (by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, at the Nederlander Theater) tells the epic adventure of Captain Newton and his son John. It has numerous special effects, powerful ballads, and a heart-wrenching storyline fraught with danger. I’d love to buy the cast recording to hear many of these songs again.
After the prologue, John Newton (Josh Young) gets the show off to a strong start with the powerful ballad “Truly Alive.” He has a robust voice and is a commanding singer. Next, the horrors of slavery are shown as a cage full of slaves appears stage center. They are screaming, trembling in fear, and howling as they are roughly treated and thrown to the ground by their captors. They are then auctioned off to the highest bidder and receive a scalding brand mark on their backs, as they screech again in agonizing pain. John doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with this, and reasons that if he and his father don’t sell the slaves, then others will.
Mary Carlett (Erin Mackey) sings several beautiful ballads throughout the show and shines in Act II with “Tell Me Why” and “I Still Believe.” When she and John first reunite after a long absence in Act I, I didn’t feel the excitement and passion they should have had for each other. However, their love and devotion became much clearer in Act II after so many events transpire. Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt) is upset that his son John loafs around, so sends him off to perform hard work at sea for five years, despite John’s desperate pleas not to go. Meanwhile, Mary works as a spy for the abolitionists who hope to free the slaves. She starts to “date” Major Gray (Chris Hoch) to gain valuable information to pass onto the abolitionists. The authentic period costumes and the ballroom dancing at The Great Hall add festive moments to the show.
The special effects are spectacular. Act I ends with a dazzling underwater effect after the ship is attacked and people are floating in the water. The Act II hurricane was a sight to behold, with a strong wind, mist and fog. The woman in front of me even covered her head with a hood to stay dry.
Act II starts with spirited African dancing performed by Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy) and her tribe. John is enslaved by her, but soon turns the tables by making a business deal with her and starts running his own slave trade for her. The show is not without its sarcasm; I loved Captain Newton’s sassy comment to Major Gray just before he set sail to rescue his son. Other standouts include Nanna (Laiona Michelle) who sings the painfully poignant “Daybreak” as she is chained by Major Gray. Gun battles, death and life lessons occur in Act II. The turnaround experienced by John after he sees God (who saved his ship) is quite heartfelt. I loved his rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the very end, where it starts off so quietly but grows into a forceful number where the entire cast joins in. After the curtain call, a reprise of the title song is sung again where the (standing) audience sings along with the cast.
Amazing Grace – With: Josh Young (John Newton), Erin Mackey (Mary Catlett), Tom Hewitt (Captain Newton), Chuck Cooper (Pakuteh/Thomas), Chris Hoch (Major Gray), Stanley Bahorek (Robert Haweis), Harriett D. Foy (Princes Peyai), Laiona Michelle (Nanna), Rachael Ferrera (Yema), and Elizabeth Ward Land (Mrs. Catlett).
Written by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron; Music and Lyrics by Christopher Smith; Directed by Gabriel Barre; and Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Scenic Design by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Ken Billington and Paul Miller; Sound Design by Jon Weston; and Orchestrations by Kenny Seymour.
The Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street), www.ticketmaster.com, through December 20, 2015. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes, including intermission.