Playbill on Opening Night: Whip-Cracks, Shipwrecks and Sing-Alongs All in An Evening's Work for Amazing Grace

News   Playbill on Opening Night: Whip-Cracks, Shipwrecks and Sing-Alongs All in An Evening's Work for Amazing Grace Musical sagas about white-slave traders turning songwriters are in short supply on stage (as in life), but that oversight has been remedied by a novice, Christopher Smith, a cop from Philadelphia, who wrote himself his own ticket to Broadway as concept creator-composer-lyricist-and (with Arthur Giron) bookwriter for Amazing Grace, a show based on the autobiography of one such whip-cracking tunesmith, John Newton.

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Newton, presented here with large warts and all, spends most of his stage time sinking deep in sin, winning few points from the contemporary crowd for his human trafficking from a part of Africa labeled “Negroland” on a large map, to work camps in the Americas. Mellowing him a bit is his love interest, a before-her-time abolitionist, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), who reminds us--despite his seafaring swagger-and-dash––that he writes sensitive poems (lyrics, as they will later be called). You don’t see any of this because he’s too busy battling elements, native attacks, clamorous sea storms and other manly endeavors. Toward the end of the show, Newton hits the sandbar of salvation and is born again.

The fruits of this sudden turnabout conversion are more evident in the 2006 British film also called "Amazing Grace." It takes place 47 years later and concerns the efforts of William Wilberforce, a disciple of the born-again Newton, to finish the job to abolish British slavery. This new crusader (played by Ioan Gruffud) even gets a few catch-up scenes with the elderly, evangelical Newton, first mopping the floor of a monastery and later sightlessly dictating his autobiography (“’Was blind, but now I see’––I wrote that,” weeps Albert Finney in a superb, profoundly moving cameo).

Did Josh Young, the musical’s John Newton learn something about his character from the film? “Yes,” he replied, “I learned that Albert Finney is an incredible actor.”

Previously seen on Broadway as a Tony-nominated Judas in the 2012 Jesus Christ Superstar, Young confessed a preference for those flawed. “These are the interesting characters, the ones most worth playing,” he contended, “but you gotta find something redeeming about anybody you play. John Newton’s a slave trader. He’s an alcoholic. He’s a brat. He’s a good-for-nothing. But there is more there.

“You can only do so much in a show. John, actually, was a good kid. He memorized the whole Bible. He loved his mother. She was his whole world, his moral compass. When she died of consumption, everything fell apart for him. He didn’t know right from wrong. He lost himself. Thank goodness! He was lost, but now he is found.” Goodness in Amazing Grace is rather centrally located in Thomas, Newton’s fictional manservant. Chuck Cooper, who gives the part considerable dignity and dimension, based the part on Olaudah Equaino, an erudite ex-slave-turned-author of that era.

It’s not the first time Cooper has provided the heart and soul of a show. “Am I that?” he dirt-kicked. “If I deliver what’s called for in the script, I’m just grateful for that.”

Without so much as opening their mouths, Young and Cooper contribute to one of the most spectacular Act I finales in recent memory––a wave-lashing storm at sea that smoothly and rather miraculously dovetails into an underwater rescue.

Gabriel Barre makes his Broadway-directing bow with this show, having helmed what he estimates “close to 100 shows” Off-Broadway, on the fringe and regionally, and he hasn’t been waiting all this time just to do an epic underwater ballet on stage.

“Like every moment in the show, the end of the first act was a huge collaboration,” he admitted. “It involved about ten different departments. The idea came from design meetings with Eugene Lee. He thought it would be really cool to show the sea battle from underwater, so we found a way that the effect would advance our story.”

After that colossal closing, Harriett D. Foy had the unenviable task of opening up the second act. Regal and ready for bear, she’s Princess Peyai, an African slave-trader who captures Newton after a shipwreck off the Sierra Leone coast. “She’s a fearless woman,” said Foy, “a real badass, but I don’t judge’ She’s based on a real person who actually enslaved him, made him eat off the floor and let her own slaves abuse him.”

Tom Hewitt, who saves son Newton from such a fate, loved the showdown with Foy. “It brings out the 12-year-old boy in me––shootin’ guns at each other for a living!” A stern father figure on stage, he was anything but off-stage. “I like wearing a wig with two curls on the side. It’s a good look for me. Maybe the kids will take it up.”

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