Review by Dom O'Hanlon
17 July 2015
There isn't an oven big enough for this turkey, which arrives on Broadway from an out of town try-out in Chicago where the writing already seemed to be on the wall, in the same way it's window card will soon be at Joe Allen's. The first musical opening of the season is a Sunday School polemic that beats you around the head with its message but fails to have any of the charm or memorable melodies enjoyed by other Christian tuners such as 'Godspell' or 'Joseph'.
When your title number is a song everyone knows and credit can only be levelled at the vocal arranger and orchestrator, you've got to know you're in trouble. Added as a clumsy addendum to the second act, the moment the full company sing the immortal spiritual you thank God almost as loudly as John Newton for a moment of music that is moving, memorable and interesting – because it's the first we've had in two and a half long hours. This is a score, from first time composer Christopher Smith, that manages to make 'Rule Britannia' stand out as a hit (and don't worry – you get to hear it twice).
The book reads like John Newton's Wikipedia page, only less inspiring, and probably less truthful. Presented as a two dimensional cardboard cut out, we are told with the broadest of strokes of Newton's epiphany as he goes from being sympathetic to the slave trade to being a victim of it, followed by his final turn against it. There is no light or shade in his character, and the audience are never sure how to treat him. A leading man painted as a villain, who we're only allowed to invest with once he's had his connection to God late in the second act makes for a confusing central focus.
This results in his love interest, the seemingly revolutionary Mary Catlett, becoming a much more interesting perspective through which we can see the story through – her inner struggle to speak out against the slave trade set against her social standing and family connections.
The subject matter is in no way trivial, but this cumbersome narrative does nothing to make you connect with the characters, feel sympathy for the situation or even begin to understand those caught up in the horrendous business. I can't imagine this subject matter ever being dealt with in a more elementary way – even a middle school assembly project would give a more insightful and educational exploration of the theme.
The direction and staging heaves under the viscous book and uninspiring score, attempting to give interesting visuals to this paint-by-numbers musical, but instead adding further weight to a saggy narrative. Visual tricks we've seen before in musicals such as 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Tarzan' are used successfully at the end of Act One, but remain as unoriginal as the score and lyrics.
Some praise can be given to the dialect coach for managing to get most of the cast to give a convincing attempt at a British accent – something that is frighteningly rare on Broadway at the moment. Kinky Boots take note.
There isn't much to fault with any of the performances – instead you spend so much time feeling sorry for them having to deliver the material they have been dealt. Josh Young has a voice of pure gold and does what he can with the show's bigger musical moments. Chuck Cooper wrings as much emotion as possible out of his role of Pakuteh, Newton's family slave who saves his life and is later banished and saved by Newtown as part of his epiphany – but his narrative framing device only muddles the focus of the central characters fighting for the spotlight.
Like many shows before it, and sadly many more to come, 'Amazing Grace' is a lesson in ambition and blind-sightedness clouding better judgement. The combination of novice Producers and a first time composer, book writer and lyricist have resulted in a messy, haphazard and in many places cringe-worthy musical that doesn't deserve the subject it's trying to deal with. An uninspiring start to the 2016 season.
"the musical itself unfolds as an overstuffed history lesson trimmed in melodrama, with a standard-issue romantic subplot and some dutiful attempts to explore the lives of the slaves ."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Smith's score seems to aim for "Les Miz"-like grandeur, but falls short, despite some agreeable tunes."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Ye of little faith will find it tough sledding."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
"The creators have good instincts about a story worth telling. But their reach exceeds their grasp."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Young and Mackey both give committed performances, but their singing has no emotional range - he's all one-note intensity while her light soprano is pretty and period-appropriate but short on passion."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"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."
Jeremy Gerard for Deadline:
External links to full reviews from popular press...