By Barry Reszel
Chicago is the ground floor in the never-ending search for the next great musical.
Amazing Grace may just be it.
With a soaring, ballad-laden score; beautiful lyrics; intriguing relationships; universal themes of love, loss, bitterness, loss of faith and redemption from darkness; historical significance, including a collective call to look at slavery from a different perspective; and the fact that the story is a historical biopic wrapped around one of the most well-known songs in history, Amazing Grace is oh so sweet, indeed.
Critics, reviewers (this one included) and the Actors’ Equity union take Broadway in Chicago to task for mixing in substandard, non-union shows with their more accomplished, more expensive union productions (and not marketing or pricing them differently). So give Broadway in Chicago its due for taking on the world premiere of the uber-professional Amazing Grace, if for no other reason than it makes Chicagoland a deserved launching pad for what could well be next year’s Tony nominees. Kudos, too, to Lead Producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland for what must be a labor of love and leap of faith. She deserves the support necessary to keep Amazing Grace alive.
Whether or not the production makes it to the 2015 Tony´s will depend on its next steps. But say this for the current inaugural production: no expense was spared in bringing the finest stage talent, terrific special effects, gorgeous costuming and intriguing stage design to the Bank of America Theatre.
The hyped production promising “the story that inspired the hynm” delivers…and then some. With music and lyrics by Christopher Smith and book by Smith and Arthur Giron, the Gabriel Barre-directed production stars crystalline-voiced Tony nominee Josh Young (Judas in Broadway´s Jesus Christ Superstar and Che in the national tour of Evita) and fellow Broadway star Erin Mackey (Broadway´s Chaplin and the NY Philharmonic´s recent PBS production of Sweeney Todd). Anyone who wouldn’t seriously consider buying a ticket to hear these two sing the alphabet cannot call himself or herself an aficionado of musical theatre.
And their supporting cast is an ensemble of their equals. Tony nominee Tom Hewitt and Tony winner Chuck Cooper lead the list of national theatre veterans including Chris Hoch, Stanley Bahorek, Harriet D. Foy and Laiona Michelle. The ensemble includes Marie Juliette Abney, Erica Aubrey, Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Mike Evariste, Sean Ewing, Rachael Ferrera, Savannah Frazier, Christopher Gurr, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Allen Kendall, Elizabeth Ward Land, Michael Dean Morgan, Vince Oddo, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Gavriel Savit, Dan Sharkey, Bret Shuford, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Toni Elizabeth White and Hollie E. Wright.
Together, this gifted ensemble tells the story of John Newton, an insolent, young, rich heir to his father´s slave-trading company in mid-1700s England. His physical and emotional journeys during which he becomes an abolitionist, albeit reluctantly, lay the groundwork for his ultimate penning of the title song, presented as an appropriate epilogue to the tale. And let it be known that this cast´s rendition of that final song puts every church choir´s to shame.
A deeper delving into the complex characters and relationships, the book´s unique insight into slavery and Amazing Grace´s brilliantly stunning songbook will be accomplished, one can hope, through deserved decades of analysis.
Critics will no doubt throw darts; and those darts may well be useful in the production’s next edit. Some of the battle sequences need greater grounding in visual reality. Perhaps greater connection to the title hymn needs to be woven throughout. Some would say that a critical look at slavery through caucasian eyes lacks for credibility; this observer does not agree. But those decisions are for the next iteration.
To patrons wondering whether to take in this production, this reviewer´s recommendation is clear: Chicagoland is graced with the opportunity to be the ground floor of the next truly magnificent contribution to the musical theatre canon. Such opportunity should be met with enthusiastic gratitude.
“Amazing Grace” performs at Chicago´s Bank of America Theatre through Nov 2. More information and tickets ($33 – $100) are available at www.broadwayinchicago.com.