Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Following success in Chicago (above), the cast of Amazing Grace is now performing the show on Broadway.

Simply Amazing. The musical Amazing Grace has its official opening at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street) on Thursday (7/16). I just had the opportunity to see one of its final preview performances.

The bottom line: I believe Amazing Grace is destined to take its place among America’s greatest works of musical theater and should enjoy a good long Les Mis-like run. Some smart movie producer should go about securing the screen rights now.

The Background: Amazingly, Christopher Smith was a Pennsylvania cop and youth education director when he felt inspired to take it upon himself to  bring the true story of slave ship captain-turned-abolitionist John Newton to the stage. Newton, as you may know, went on to write the timeless song of thanksgiving from which the show draws its title.

Without any prior experience, the self-taught musician and composer went about putting together his concept for a big-budget musical that would portray Newton’s journey from a young songwriter to a hardened slave trader and, finally, to a passionate abolitionist who also rediscovers his God-given gift for music. Smith’s leap of faith paid off when noted Broadway producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland (Godspell) agreed to attend a performance of songs he wrote for his proposed production. She liked what she heard and quickly shared his vision.

Veteran playwright Arthur Giron (Emilie’s Voltaire) was brought on to help Smith hone the show’s book.  Now, after successful runs at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and Chicago’s 2200-seat Bank of America Theater, the cast and production have arrived on Broadway. I foresee smooth sailing ahead for the show which features a well-staged and emotionally-pivotal storm at sea.

The Experience. First of all, when my wife and I arrived, we were struck by just how long the line was. Obviously, there’s something about John Newton’s story — and his redemption —  that draws people. There was also more of balance between black and white theater goers than you usually expect at the theater, where shows often predominantly appeal to one group or the other. But the story of Amazing Grace is one that reaches across boundaries of color. With all the racial strife in the news lately, it’s as if the show itself is a well-timed living testament to God’s healing grace.

Beyond the composition of the audience, Amazing Grace delivers with a heartfelt story, compelling and believable characters and songs that are actually able to a stand on their own in a show built around one of the greatest and most enduring songs ever written. That, in itself, is an amazing achievement.

And the emotion-filled finale is an experience unto its own. There was actual weeping in the audience as the show reached its powerful conclusion. The audience also ended up joining in as the cast sang Amazing Grace.  The phrase “beautiful moment” actually applies.

The Plot: Quite literally inspired by the true story John Newton (Josh Young), the prideful and musically-talented son of the head of a British slave-trading company (Tom Hewitt). While John is out for adventure and proving himself the equal of his father in the slave trade, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), the compassionate young woman he loves, finds herself drawn into the underground abolitionist movement.

As Mary puts her own life at risk — much to the concern of her African Nanna (Laiona Michelle) — John is rescued by Thomas (Chuck Cooper), his African friend and caretaker since childhood, when their ship sinks off the coast of Africa. The staging of that rescue scene, BTW, is a true theatrical feat.

John and Thomas soon find themselves the prisoners an African tribe led by Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy). The Princess is a slave trader herself, selling conquered Africans to white slave buyers. After first experiencing the other side of slavery, John makes common cause with Prince Payai who is willing to utilize his expertise even while secretly sending a ransom message to his father. Meanwhile, John’s relationship with Thomas is put to the ultimate test.

The Performances: They are uniformly commendable with Cooper and Michelle shining particularly bright in their roles of strength and dignity. Young is also excellent in the lead. A confrontational scene between Newton and Thomas is as riveting a scene as you’ll ever see. Mackey’s portrayal of Mary Catlett is also excellent.

The Songs: As I said, they are good enough to be in the same show as Newton’s own Amazing Grace — though that song will always be in a class by itself.

Of the new songs, Testimony stands out as one that speaks for anyone who (like me) has gone down wrongs paths of thought and action and is grateful to be saved by the mercy and grace of God.

The Message: Amazing Grace is about healing, the healing of the world and of individual hearts which comes only from the grace of God. It’s a compassionate show about gratitude and mercy, about listening to you heart and choosing to do the right thing. It also, IMHO, arrives just in time for a world that can use a reminder that in the midst of the storm, when it appears we’ve lost our moorings, God stands ready, able and willing to change our hearts and bring us home.

Amazing Grace is Highly Recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus