World Premiere Review of Amazing Grace: Beyond the Hype in Chicago

World Premiere Review of Amazing Grace: Beyond the Hype in Chicago
Harriett D. Foy, Josh Young and Ensemble. Photo: Joan Marcus

The Bank of America Theatre’s opening night crowd for the world premiere pre-Broadway run of Amazing Grace brought out an eclectic mix of the who’s who of Chicago and New York’s arts, music, political and social scene—from the ponytail clad Dee Snider to former Chicago Alderman Ed Burke—all (or almost all) shouting their approval at Sunday’s production.

Short runs with the promise of Broadway tend to bring people out of the woodwork in Chicago–even though our hometown theater has been called second to none by many respected sources. (Amazing Grace will be in the Windy City now through November 2nd).

So was it worth the hype?

Mostly, yes.

“Amazing Grace” is the story of John Newton, a real-life 18th century Englishman, whose notorious life-style as a ladies man, brutal slave trader, heavy drinker and non-believer changes–almost overnight–as he transforms into an abolitionist-pastor who pens the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” among others.

But “Amazing Grace” is a lot more than a musical about the song from which the title was derived.  In actuality, it is more a musical about slavery—hardly something to sing about—yet somehow, “Amazing Grace,” manages to pull it off with aplomb with help from an A-list of some of the Big Apple’s finest.

The big-bucks, big-expectations show has been in development since 2007.  With so much going on in the musical—it was no easy task to get everything together for stage.  The themes read like a Gillian Flynn novel with more turns and twists than a mountain highway. There’s the father-son conflict, the love story, abolitionist plotting, high seas drama, torture,  believers versus non believers, spying, class wars and more. Many parts of the story, as expected, are difficult to watch but important nonetheless.

With an Equity cast of 32, and a live orchestra, “Amazing Grace” has it all.

First off, John Newton, played by Josh Young (Tony Award nominee® for Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar”) is sensational. His opening number, “Truly Alive,” put the audience in his corner from the beginning. Not only does he have a commanding voice, but his charisma dominates.

Johnny as he begs forgiveness for the terrible way he treated Thomas. Photo: Joan Marcus

Johnny as he begs forgiveness for the terrible way he treated Thomas. Photo: Joan Marcus

Young is joined by an outstanding cast that includes the beautifully voiced Erin Mackey (a Broadway favorite in roles including Glinda in “Wicked”) as Mary Catlett, John’s love interest; Tony Award nominee® Tom Hewitt doing a top-notch job as John’s strict father, Captain Newtown (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show); Tony Award winner® Chuck Cooper as the loyal slave Thomas (Act One, The Life) wows the audience with his heartbreaking rendition of “Nowhere Left to Run” upon being sent to Barbados; Chris Hoch as the slimy Major Archibald Gray (Matilda, Far From Heaven); Stanley Bahorek as Robert Haweis (Nerds, Honeymoon in Vegas); Harriett D. Foy as the feisty Princess Peyai (Mamma Mia!); and the wonderful Laiona Michelle as Mary’s beloved Nana (The Book of Mormon national tour).

Director Gabriel Barre (Andrew Lippas’ The Wild Party) does a pro-job throughout capped by a thrillingly staged underwater scene where Chuck Cooper (Thomas) saves the drowning Young (Johnny). Choreography by Tony Award® winner Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) was also spot-on.

Interestingly, a relative newcomer to musical theater and former policeman composer-lyricist Christopher Smith, did a commanding job at the reins as music, lyrics and book creator along with Arthur Giron.

As with any pre-Broadway production, the kinks need to be ironed out with changes just part of the process. One area that many believe needs work is Newton’s somewhat fairytale, unrealistic conversion from bad guy to good guy which takes place near the end of the second act when Johnny, who is about to end it all discovers a letter from Mary (Erin Mackey), professing her love and undying faith in him–and, like that, he becomes a changed man.

The rousing final scene in the show where the entire cast sings “Amazing Grace” and the audience joins in resulting in a standing ovation shows the potential of this work in progress–a musical well worth seeing.

Tickets and information

Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. Through November 2
Tickets: $33-$100. Click here for tickets and more information or call (800) 775-2000.

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