Lest you think that the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace—which purports to be the story of the man behind the lyrics of that beloved 18th-century Christian hymn—is one long celebration of the soul-stirring song, packed with verse after verse and reprise upon reprise, characters riffing American Idol-style on the familiar melody, and endless variations on a theme, theatergoer beware: Amazing Grace doesn’t make it that easy. You’ll have to wait to hear those two little words—almost two and a half hours, in fact.
The good news: It’s worth it. First, it’s only Josh Young (Tony nominee for Jesus Christ Superstar), who plays famed slave ship captain–turned–abolitionist–turned–wordsmith John Newton, starting what’s later called the “simple song of gratitude.” Then various cast members join in: Duos and trios alternate with soloists; the full company shifts in seamlessly; a cappella harmonies move effortlessly to orchestra swells. And those key changes! Every great church choir should try to get their hands on Joseph Church’s goosebump-inducing arrangement (provided they have about 30 killer voices to chime in, that is).
If only the rest of Amazing Grace, penned largely by theatrical newcomer Christopher Smith, had such force. While by no means unpleasant, Smith’s songs—given such regrettably ironic titles as “Truly Alive” and “I Will Remember”—are, well, lifeless and forgettable. And he’s done himself no favors in crafting his hero: Yes, Newton was a very flawed man: a boarding-school troublemaker, recalcitrant son, surly drunk, sorry deckhand, insubordinate sailor—all things that apparently make a man a successful slave trader. They also make him a completely unappealing protagonist. Of course, it’s amazing that such “a wretch” penned a poetic lyric like “how precious did that grace appear/the hour I first believed.”
The creators devote so much time to cataloging Newton’s sins that they neglected to give him—or most of the other characters, for that matter—any depth. The formidable Chuck Cooper (The Piano Lesson) makes the biggest impression as the family’s house slave; but even his role seems half-finished—like someone ran out of time. “There are moments when the waves of history converge,” he begins, informing us that this “is a story that must be told.” Then he pretty much disappears for four scenes—and doesn’t even return as narrator until the epilogue.
Amazing Grace is not without its awe-inspiring moments: You’ll find yourself totally swept up in a thunder-and-lightning–filled storm scene. (Was that a mist blowing through the orchestra?) And with apologies to Julie Taymor, the Act One-concluding shipwreck—brief though suspenseful—features more impressive aerial work than anything in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Oh, if musicals were made of moments! C+