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Theater Thu Oct 23 2014

Amazing Grace: A Musical with an Everlasting Message

I went into Amazing Grace completely blind as to its purpose and detailed moments of the plot line, which was okay with me. I had no expectations or preconceived notions of its plot line. The mystery that shrouded the events portrayed in the musical intrigued me, the title not alluding to its complex, lyrical storyline. The minimalist program design showcases only a compass and the title of the renowned song, so I thought this was going to be a jubilant, historical journey of the ballad's emergence to become the well-loved hymn.

What I witnessed during the musical's two and a half hour duration, however, was a tale of the triumph of good over evil as it depicted the eradication of slavery, and an in-depth, insider view into the struggles slaves had endured with a fictional, but all-too-real portrayal of societal times that actually occurred in both English and American history, and still does occur around the world today.

The story revolves around John Newton, the writer of the fabled hymn "Amazing Grace," as he reaches a coming-of-age journey in England. Played by Josh Young, seasoned actor with a gorgeous, operatic voice, we watch the character move through a tumultuous life path. Focused upon finding himself, he departs school prior to graduation and embarks on a journey in his father's slave-trade business as a merchant, which included moving countless individuals to Caribbean locales and splitting them from their families and hometowns. His love interest stemming from his childhood, Mary Catlett, finds his behavior abhorrent as she meets him after a long time apart, and John begins to find himself conflicted between the choices of what is right and what is easy.

The plot has twists and turns that are heartbreaking and unimaginable, I was captivated by the way the story brought the song's origin to light. An opulent, gleaming set showcased the dichotomy between the wealthiest patrons of England, and the slaves who they stripped of their dignity, and traded without regret for the abhorrent process.

With special effects that are brilliantly executed, we watch as heated battles occur between Englishmen. After John gets drunk at a glitzy party, his father ships him off as a worker aboard a liner. His father quickly regrets the decision as he believes that his son has been killed after the ship capsizes. We quickly learn that he was not dead at all, as we watch an exquisite stage effect scene. The curtain falls, brilliantly blue and transparent, as dropping from the top of the stage, but enshrouded by the curtain are John and Thomas, his family's servant, showcasing a scene where John is saved from drowning by the man who was purchased by his family and cared for him as his own. The love that was present as Thomas glided down the stage set to save John was beautiful and exuberant.

The divergent aspects of cultures are illuminated at the beginning of Act 2, when we are thrust into the world of Sierra Leone, on Plantain Island. Natives perform a tribal dance around captives John and Thomas, as Princess Peyai hoists a javelin above her head, wielding her power over the visitors. We see John's transformation begin here, as he finds himself treated as he was treating others, as a savage and dehumanized body.

On the other side of the world, John's sweetheart, Mary, is shown as a true feminist working for the good of all humankind. Played by the exemplary Erin Mackey, she is a shining example for those who celebrate the ideals of good above all else. As she learns from her Nana the realities of slavery, she is horrified by the words that are expressed. By flashing a simple yellow fan as she sings at the gilded party, she signifies her intent to become a freedom fighter for those who cannot eradicate the trade. Mary transforms from a woman following along with societal ideals, to one who overturns them and fights for what is right. As John is in another place physically and mentally, Mary is able to create change back home, and reform the mindsets of those that have had belief systems never altered before.

Back in Sierra Leone, John is rescued by his father and his team, who literally takes a bullet for him and dies during their return voyage. Now we see John begin to change. He decides to amend his ways by locating Thomas, who he allowed to be sold to Barbados by Princess Peyai as wrath for his own utter disrespect. As an intense storm takes over the ship, John affixes himself to the ship's mast, waiting for his death to arrive. When the storm quells, he realizes he is still alive, the crew befuddled and awestruck. As "Amazing Grace" is performed, the origin of the song is brought to life.

Throughout the entire musical, I awaited John's creation of this everlasting ballad. I wanted to see him recognize why he was writing these words, and what he was learning about the world and himself. I do feel that this moment was minimally introduced and his defining life-awakening could have been given more shape and time within the musical; we spend most of the time loathing John for his despicable actions and venomous words, and barely have time to celebrate with him his changing moments before the musical concludes.

Kudos to the talented team that put this musical together. Christopher Smith, writer, who created his first musical at the age of 17. Arthur Giron, writer who has an accomplished resume to his credit. Gabriel Barre, director, and Christopher Gattelli, choreographer, were the dream team that brought Smith's vision to life.

This was the first Broadway-bound musical for Smith, a self-taught composer. I could not be more impressed by the romantic songs and virtuosic performances that he seemed to effortlessly create. I felt dread in my stomach and a lump in my throat as the realities of slavery were expressed. I had tears in my eyes as Thomas was cast away to Barbados, with John letting evil overcome him. I clapped and found joy when Mary gave a triumphant speech to the Prince at a celebrated event, urging him to reconsider the practice of slavery and abolish it once and for all. During "Amazing Grace," the song not only represents a beautiful melody, but one that illuminates a brilliant story of freedom, redemption, and humanity. I hope that this song breathes life on Broadway, as the underlying message is one that will resonate with any human that sets foot in the theater.

Amazing Grace will take up residence in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre at 18 West Monroe Street through the evening of November 2. Tickets are available in varying tiers and can be purchased online or via the box office at (312) 977-1700.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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