‘AMAZING GRACE’ RECOMMENDED When: Through Nov. 2 Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Tickets: $33-$100 Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission
“Amazing Grace,” the stirring musical that received its world premiere Sunday night at the Bank of America Theatre, spins the story of one man’s slow, painful, intensely dramatic moral awakening to the abominations of slavery. An epic historical romance, with a strong undercurrent of the possibility of redemption, it has been artfully produced on the sort of lavish scale you’d expect for a new show by, say, Schonberg and Boublil, the creators of “Les Miserables,” or Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose “Ragtime” deals with the notion of racism with similar passion.
But here is the wonder of it all: The musical comes with a back story almost as intriguing (and true) as the one it spins about the creation of the hymn whose title it bears. For the show’s score — and it is a uniformly solid, always fervent and often soaring piece of work full of well-crafted lyrics and character-driven melodies — happens to be the first professional effort of a complete unknown. His name is Christopher Smith, and he is a self-taught musician who has spent most of his life working as a small town police officer and outreach and education director in Pennsylvania.
The book for the musical is the work of playwright Arthur Giron, who has written a straightforward, heavily episodic account of the transformation of John Newton (Josh Young, fleet and golden-voiced in a demanding role, if not the most emotionally varied actor). A privileged but rebellious young 18th century Englishman, John is hellbent on proving himself to his father (Tom Hewitt), a wealthy naval officer and slave trader in charge of the Royal Africa Company. Ironically, in his defiance, John follows closely in his father’s slave-trading footsteps. And because he is volatile, impulsive and contemptuous of Biblical commands, he becomes ensnared in situations that lead to his own enslavement — first as an impressed sailor who is whipped and abused, and later as the hostage of a ferocious African princess, Peyai (the fiery Harriett D. Foy) who even brands him.
Not surprisingly, there is an abiding love interest, Mary Catlett (silver-voiced Erin Mackey, in a poised, expertly modulated performance). A well-bred, musically gifted and fierce-minded young woman, Mary has adored John since childhood but cannot come to terms with the person he has become. After being introduced to slavery by way of a horrific shipboard auction (given a notably graphic depiction here), she is drawn into the underground abolitionist movement of the time, risking charges of treason as she agrees to spy on the odious Major Gray (Chris Hoch), the pompous idiot who wants to marry her.
Also not surprisingly, both John and Mary have loving black servants who were victims of the slave trade. Thomas (Chuck Cooper, who easily steals the show with his scorching monologue, and his performance of the searing “Nowhere Left to Run”), is the man who takes far better care of John than his own father does. Nanna (Laiona Michelle, who brings a beautiful gravity to another superb song, “Daybreak”) is a trusted confidante and protector of Mary.
Gabriel Barre’s direction is clean and crisp, if, like the show as a whole, a bit wooden, though an underwater scene clearly thrills the audience. The set design, by the masterful Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, is shipboard grand, and shifts easily from continent to continent, with Toni-Leslie James’ costumes a display of museum-quality splendor. Joseph Church’s music direction brings full luster to Smith’s score, although having the male singers hold their final notes at exaggerated length can be more irritating than inspiring.
And now, you might well ask, what about the actual composition of “Amazing Grace”? It turns out to be little more than a choral footnote here, which in many ways is the whole point. For it was Newton’s sin-scarred road to enlightenment and remorse — and the uncanny ability of those he woulnded most deeply to grant him forgiveness — that enabled him to pen the song that says: “I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see.”