Score: Christopher Smith; Book: Smith and Arthur Giron. At: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Tickets: 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com; $33-$100. Runs through: Nov. 16
The world-premiere musical Amazing Grace has a lot of impressive Broadway-caliber bona fides.
It has a cast full of impressive Broadway veteran performers acting and singing up a storm. It has a lavish production design full of gorgeous period costumes by designer Toni-Leslie James. It also has a swashbuckling staging by Gabriel Barre that boasts a number of awe-inspiring momentsparticularly an underwater shipwreck rescue.
But what Amazing Grace doesn't have at this point is a script and score that would survive New York's vicious critics. Now there's no denying that composer/co-playwright Christopher Smith and co-playwright Arthur Giron have created many moving and touching moments throughout Amazing Grace. But other times their work is merely functional rather than transcendent, particularly with its clunky exposition, the lack of a truly rousing ensemble opening number and a by-the-numbers feel to the assignment of songs to some characters.
This is a pity, since the historically inspired truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of John Newton, an English slave trader who later becomes an abolitionist, is one that definitely deserves to be staged. The fact that Newton is also the credited composer of the show's enduring title song is also of major note and Amazing Grace would provide a thrilling and disturbing backstory for audiences both religious and secular to contemplate.
Part of the problem with Amazing Grace is that Smith and Giron make more of the supporting characters surrounding Newton more compelling and more sympathetic than him ( though it's no fault of actor Josh Young's performance of Newton, since he has the requisite powerful tenor voice and persona to carry the show ). Smith and Giron also emphasize Newton as the title song's lyrics' "wretch," so it's very hard to empathize with him as a business-minded slave trader until he repents his past actions and is later "found."
I personally was more entranced by the journey of Newton's love interest, Mary Catlett ( a lovely Erin Mackey ), who earlier on dedicates herself to the abolitionist cause and becomes a society spy by leading on a phony engagement with Major Archibald Gray ( Tom Hoch in a deliciously villainous and pompous turn ).
The heart-wrenching and powerfully acted stories of such slaves like the faithful and noble Thomas ( Chuck Cooper ) and the protective Nanna ( Laiona Michelle ) also highlight the difficulties in rooting for Newton. And that's even when Newton does experience a significant change of heart and realize the error of his ways after events like being enslaved himself by the bad-ass Princess Peyai ( Harriett D. Foy ) in Sierra Leone, or following the rescue sacrifice of his once-distant father, Captain Newton ( Tom Hewitt ).
At this point, Amazing Grace certainly has many elements that are definitely ship-shape for a New York transfer. But without more work on its script and score, this vessel won't survive the treacherous waters of Broadway.