Christopher Smith (Book, Music, and Lyrics) and Arthur Giron’s (Book) musical Amazing Grace had a relatively short run on Broadway in 2015, playing the Nederlander Theatre for a little over three months. Much like the musical’s lead character, John Newton, Smith’s first professional foray into writing for the theater, has been granted another somewhat unexpected chance at “life” with a production at the 472-seat, aesthetically pleasing World Stage Theater at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. When I saw the show on Broadway, I thought the material would speak the most to those interested in matters of faith, so the venue is an appropriate choice.
Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, most everyone in the English-speaking Western world can probably tell you that “Amazing Grace” is a famous hymn and maybe recite a few words. The story behind the hymn is likely comparatively less known. Smith and Giron loosely explore how the Englishman John Newton came to write the song in their compelling, but still rough-around-the-edges musical. Newton’s story is one of a loss of faith, finding God in the least likely of ways, and then accepting His forgiveness and mercy. Like the song suggests, Newton was lost and then found, both literally and figuratively.
When we first meet John (Michael Burrell), it becomes clear that he’s a little lost. He’s just return from sea in search of adventure. He’s a disappointment to his father Captain Newton (Russell Rinker), an influential force in the slave trade, as well as his childhood friend Mary Catlett (Eleanor Todd). She’s happy he’s returned home safe, but is nonetheless exasperated that John continues to make bad decisions – one of which is abandoning his pursuit of music, a pursuit she also shares.
When John takes it upon himself to handle his father’s slave auction after a less than happy reunion, Mary sees what really goes on there and is horrified. She provides assistance to one young girl and becomes involved in the abolitionist movement – her selfless act is just one more thing that further separates her from John.
Around the same time that Mary is dealing with complications of secretly helping the abolitionists, John gets press-ganged into the Navy. Although he has the means, Captain Newton refuses to help him – perhaps thinking that time in the service will bring about John’s reform. It does, but not in the way Captain Newton probably anticipated.
When John boards the Navy ship along with his slave Thomas (Isaiah Bailey), he experiences a series of life-altering events, including a violent encounter with another warship, a fall into the sea, a capture by slave trader Princess Peyai (Shannan E. Johnson) in Sierra Leone, and a short-lived reunion with his father who comes to rescue him.
Through many of these events, John continues to make bad decisions until he’s on a ship heading back home to England. A massive storm leaves the vessel full of holes, yet it still floats and everyone survives. John recognizes that his survival is not just a coincidence and acknowledges God for the first time in years. This new lease on life sets him up to make a series of good decisions, one of which is to join the abolitionist movement after he and Mary are reunited. Years later, reflecting on this experience of being lost and then found, he writes “Amazing Grace.”
While Smith and Giron’s book is admittedly a bit clunky and – at times – heavy-handed, if one takes into account that it’s Smith’s first time writing for the professional theater, it’s actually pretty decent. The same can be said about the music and lyrics. While it’s a shame that the most soul-stirring and well-composed song is the titular one that John Newton wrote, there are a few good musical theater numbers that are both pleasing to listen to and give us good insight into the characters. These include Thomas’ solo, “Nowhere Left to Run,” “I Still Believe” (sung by Mary), “Testimony,” and “I Will Remember,” both of which are sung by John after he recognizes God’s presence, power, and love for him despite all his man failures and shortcomings.
A mostly young cast at the Museum of the Bible does everything it can to sell the story under Gabriel Barre’s solid direction. While much has been made of the fact that the production employs a non-Equity cast, it’s imperative that we don’t discount the tremendous talent on the stage.
This is especially true of the marvelously talented Eleanor Todd who gives one of the most nuanced and wonderfully sung performances I’ve seen locally this season. Although she already caught my attention at Keegan Theatre earlier this year in both Parade and Big Fish, I have even greater respect for her for what she did in this production. She needs to be seen on DC’s biggest musical theater stages if not on Broadway. Isaiah Bailey also makes a lasting impression thanks to his rich vocal tone and committed performance.
While Michael Burrell displayed some vocal shortcomings on the night I attended the show – his tone was a bit too nasally for my taste and he struggled with pitch at times – his song interpretation skills were first-rate. He also proved himself extremely capable of portraying a mostly unlikeable character and slowly, but surely, showing us how John was growing into the man Mary always knew he could be. His transformation was wholly believable, which meant more to me than just hearing the songs sung perfectly.
Other strong performers include Kelli Blackwell as Nanna, Shannan E. Johnson as Princess Peyai, and Kanysha Williams as Yema. They’re all gifted singers with equally impressive acting skills.
This production uses the Broadway set (Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce) and costumes (Toni-Leslie James). While the set doesn’t fit as well as it did on this stage as it did in the Nederlander – this stage is much smaller, and there’s no wing space, so everything is bit crammed in – it still serves the show very well. The lighting (Ken Billington) and the costumes provide visual interest.
If I were to point out a huge production deficiency it would be the inexcusable lack of a live orchestra. While the use of a track is hardly new, it’s particularly problematic here because it sounds like they recorded only a few instruments and there’s a bit of a manufactured quality. if a production is going to go with a track (which again is a less than ideal decision), some attempt should be made to at least record a large orchestra with quality equipment, particularly for this kind of large sweeping story. Take a note, for instance, from Sight & Sound Theatre. Here at the Museum of the Bible the situation was confounded even further by a decision to place each singer’s mic on the highest level possible. Parts of the track were simply inaudible when the vocals were added into the “mix.” It’s a small theater space. There is no need to pump the volume like that.
These misgiving asides, I want to emphasize again that there’s a lot to like at the World Stage Theater right now. While this production – and any subsequent national tour stops – is likely to find its most receptive audience in people with an upbringing and faith similar to my own, it’s not only for those that can recite every verse of the title song (and many other hymns) without even thinking for a minute, or can identify with the idea of God showing His presence in their lives. The idea of putting yourself on a better path after losing your way is something most everyone, regardless of faith or lack thereof, can understand. Even if the whole idea sounds schmaltzy, at the very least there’s reason enough to check out the many talented members of the young cast.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
AMAZING GRACE plays through January 7, 2018 at the Museum of the Bible (400 4th Street, SW) in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online at: https://tickets.museumofthebible.org/.