I am delighted to have had the opportunity to see the musical Amazing Grace at the Bank of America Theater in Chicago. It is based on the story of John Newton, who wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” But it isn’t focused on the hymn (although echoes of its familiar melody are woven into the score once or twice, and the entire cast sings the song at the end), but rather on the life of the song’s author. Although there is quite a bit of focus on the relationship between John Newton and the childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, who eventually became his wife, there is every bit as much focus on Newton’s own story of redemption, and the events that lead both John and Mary separately to become opponents of slavery – John slightly later but most dramatically, as he was (as we see in the musical) actively involved in the slave trade.
The story offers no soppy sentimentalism, nor a heavy-handed or preachy approach to religion. John Newton’s character is angry at God, resentful at the death of his deeply devout mother, and convinced that the unanswered prayers he uttered for her healing are clear evidence that God and religion are only so much deception. His doubts and defiance are given a clear voice with no attempt to dilute them. And it makes the story of his redemption all the more powerful. Although God and the Bible play key roles in that story, so too does the determination and faithful love of Mary.
In this, it is very reminiscent of the musical Les Miserables, which offers a story with religion profoundly woven into its core and openly expressed in its lyrics. The songs and the story are comparably powerful, if not indeed more so, given that the story is a true one.
It is a phenomenal cast that performed the musical in Chicago. Josh Young and Erin Mackey were incredible in the leading roles, but it seemed as though every role was played by someone perfect to convey the character, to sing the songs and play the role. Chuck Cooper as “Thomas” is thoroughly persuasive as the slave who helped raise John, who rescues John only to have John betray him, and who confronts John with powerful rebukes at key moments. Laiona Michelle as Nanna, who serves a similar role in relation to Mary. One wonderful thing about this is the fact that we see African characters playing decisive roles in working towards their own liberation. There is no sense that the musical offers a simplistic portrayal of white oppressors who then also become saviors. Characters are complex and deep. I also appreciated the depiction of strong female characters.
The special effects were also phenomenal – from the cannon battle in which a ship John is on sinks, to Thomas’ rescue of John when he is drowning. Such a vivid depiction of an underwater rescue was not something I expected to see on stage!
If the musical is powerful, it is amazing to learn not just the true story it tells, but the story of its composition, not by a well-known and experienced composer of musicals, but by a former police officer with a vision.
I could go one. But adding additional words will not do any better justice to the experience, which impacted me on an emotional level. And so let me conclude by saying what I assume is already clear: I highly recommend that anyone who appreciates musical theater – and even people who normally do not or think they do not – go see Amazing Grace. I found it not merely satisfying but inspirational on every level – composition, story, performance, costumes, effects, props, venue, and message. But if you’re not entirely persuaded, take a look at, and have a listen to, these:
Let me add that I am grateful to have been invited to review the show on my blog, and to have received a complementary ticket in exchange for doing so. The review above represents my honest and sincere thoughts about the performance. It was worth driving from Indianapolis to Chicago to see it!