Amazing Grace is a Musical for the Holidays

Cast of Amazing Grace.  Photo by Stan Barouh.jpg

Many opinion pieces have come out recently about the newly opened Museum of the Bible, a privately-funded museum very near the National Mall in DC.  This is not one of those pieces. Rather, this is a review of Amazing Grace, a nationally touring musical making its way from Broadway to DC (playing through January 7) and then around the country.  The Museum has an impressive theater on its fifth floor, where I recently saw the musical.

From the press release:

AMAZING GRACE is an “unforgettable musical saga” depicting the conversion of John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace,” from a brutal slave trader to a committed Reformer and Christian who would ultimately pen the “hymn of hymns.”

John Newton, a willful and musically talented young Englishman, faces a future as uncertain as the turning tide. Coming of age as Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery, he finds himself torn between following in the footsteps of his father – a slave trader – or embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart. Accompanied by his slave, Thomas, John embarks on a perilous voyage on the high seas. When that journey finds John in his darkest hour, a transformative moment of self-reckoning inspires a blazing anthem of hope that will finally guide him home. Brimming with emotion and adventure, AMAZING GRACE is an unforgettable musical saga that captures the spirit of history’s sweetest and most powerful sound: freedom.

The musical was stirring and long, like many musicals are, but the most memorable takeaway was how insistent the main character, John Newton, is in his willfulness. The synopsis cites “a transformative moment,” but there are so many breaking points (losing his mother at a young age, being pressed into the navy for years, being shipwrecked, being beaten and imprisoned, on and on). I kept thinking surely this time he’ll turn his life around—just what the audience is supposed to feel. I was full of frustration and impatience with the protagonist, and sympathy with those around him.

Besides the affecting story, the sets and singing were extraordinary. Though none of the songs can touch the title song for grandeur and strength, some are especially catchy.

The play centers on the issue of slavery in the British Empire. So many locations are quoted in dialogue (Barbados, Manhattan) that it’s easy to see how the British slave trade affected the course of the world. The characters of Thomas and Nanna, the enslaved servants to the main couple, John and Mary, spend the first half of the musical falling into dated tropes, but in the second act this problem is semi-redeemed as Thomas especially gets one of the most chilling and powerful scenes in recent memory.

I recommend Amazing Grace with some guidance—take your visiting family members over the holidays if you feel they have a penchant for a visit to the Museum of the Bible.  Mention the newly opened museum and if their eyes light up, you have a group outing on your hands. Amazing Grace plays in DC through January 7. Tickets start at $70.

Princess Peyai (Shannan E. Johnson) and John Newton ( Michael Burrell) . Photo by Stan Barouh.jpgDirected by Gabriel Barre, Amazing Grace is written by Christopher Smith (with book, music and lyrics and book) and Arthur Giron (book) and will feature the choreography of Christopher Gattelli, and music direction of Keith Levenson. It is produced by Alex Rankin/ Continental Productions with artistic consultant Carolyn Rossi Copeland/ CRC Productions.  

Cast includes: Michael Burrell as John Newton (Oklahoma!, Legally Blonde, Evita), Russell Rinker as Captain Newton (Blue Man Group – Las Vegas, NYC, Boston, Chicago, North American Tour, South Pacific) along with Isaiah Bailey as Thomas/Pakuteh (Moses, Dreamgirls, Big Fish) and Newton’s childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, played by Eleanor Todd (NYMF: Beyond Words, Parade, Big Fish), they will join Monique Elinor Barnes(Regional: TreeMonisha), Kelli Blackwell (National Tour: Chicago), Wyn Delano (Regional: Oklahoma), Shannan E. Johnson (National Tour: Ghost the Musical), Jennifer Lyons Pagnard (Regional: Parade, Floyd Collins),David Sanborn (Regional: The Miracle), Joshua Simon (Regional: James and the Giant Peach), David Socolar, James Tarrant (Regional: Grease, Annie Get Your Gun), Kanysha Williams (Regional: The WIZ), Jordan Campbell, Colleen Clancy (Regional: Sweet Charity), Nicki Elledge (Regional: A Little Night Music), Dion Montéz Jarrett  (Regional: Ragtime, Showboat), Da’Von Moody (Regional: Avenue Q, BatBoy),  Briana Gibson Reeves (Regional: A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Morgan Scott, Andrew Tarquinio (Regional: The Circle of Life: The Songs of Tim Rice).

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