by John Stoltenberg
A gorgeous production of a glorious musical in a grand new DC theater. What’s not to love?
The new hall for performing arts is the 472-seat World Stage Theater, high up on the fifth floor of the new Museum of the Bible. The undulating lines of its sleek brown wood-paneled walls and ceiling are meant to evoke, says the museum’s website, “an ancient tent flapping in the wind.” For a frequent theatergoer it might also call to mind the embracing effect inside the Kogod Cradle—agreeably proportioned and welcoming, not showy or self-important. The lobby is nothing special architecturally but has no need to be: it looks out on expansive views of the Capitol, Mall, and sky.
Of particular interest to frequent theatergoers is the World Stage Theater sound system, which—on the basis of the production of Amazing Grace just opened—could be the envy of many another Broadway-musical-size house in town. (I won’t name names; but if you’ve ever sat in a seat with lousy amplification, you know what I mean.) Here one can hear the show’s adroit lyrics and wonderful vocals with clarion quality throughout.
The musical Amazing Grace—with music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, book by Smith and Arthur Giron—had a run on Broadway two years ago. The production now in DC is an all-new non-Equity mounting that after inaugurating the World Stage Theater will take off on a 27-state national tour.
Amazing Grace is a sweeping saga of one man’s redemption and an enslaved people’s freedom. In a sense, it’s Les Miserables lite. I mean no disrespect by comparing this sturdy show to that masterpiece. On the contrary, I mean to point out that as impressive as Amazing Grace’s more modest execution is, its ethical substance is just as profound.
The story arc of Amazing Grace centers the character arc of John Newton (1725-1807), an English mariner and slave-trading businessman with a gift for hymn writing but no particular value system other than self-involvement and money making. After nearly losing his life at sea—saved, he believed, by divine intervention—he had a religious conversion and became an abolitionist. “Amazing Grace” is the anthem he wrote to express his humble gratitude for the unearned forgiveness that freed him to change his ways and embark on a mission to make amends.
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
John Newton’s moral turnabout holds one of history’s most enduring life lessons, a beacon for how to become one’s better self. The song John Newton left us stirs soul after soul. But the story behind it has new resonance and relevance right now. As we hear in the Prologue from a slave named Thomas (an imposing Isaiah Bailey):
There are moments when the waves of history converge, when the transformation of one man can change the world. With his hands John Newton enslaved thousands, but with his words he helped to free millions. You have heard his song, though you may not have known it was his. How can something so beautiful come from someone so wretched?
We first see a set based on ship masts, sails, ropes, and rigging, a huge Union Jack unfurled as a scrim. As stunningly conceived by Scenic Designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce and Lighting Designer Ken Billington, the stage fluently becomes by turns a storm at sea, a British parlor, a near-drowning underwater, a savannah in Siera Leone, and more.
Michael Burrell as John Newton is on stage most of the show and gives such an appealing performance that he and his bright baritone keep commanding attention. At first, John seems a likable fresh-faced lad, asserting his independence (in a song called “Truly Alive”) from his domineering dad, Captain Newton (Russell Rinker), owner of a shipping company trading in African slaves.
The more we learn about this family business, the shadier John’s character appears. Soon into Act One, there is a musical number called “The Auction” that is a rawly staged slave auction, excruciating to watch. Chillingly, John becomes the auctioneer and treats us the audience as bidders, as if to implicate us in this heinous commerce. It’s a cringe-worthy scene that signals what’s to come, for clearly this musical is not going to equivocate about the horrors of human trafficking. Nor is it going to let white privilege off the hook.
John’s childhood friend and love interest, Mary Catlett (the lovely-voiced Eleanor Todd), tries to let him know she believes in his better nature, remembering how as a boy of nine “he cried out loud” (“Someone Who Hears”). Later we learn her sympathies are with the Abolitionists, which puts her life in danger and puts her at odds with John. Their relationship is on its face a musical convention, two good-looking leads overcoming obstacles on a path to love. But here the conflict between them is rendered as an eloquent examination of a universal struggle between evil and good in the most intimate interpersonal context. And it works.
The cast is about evenly divided between those who play white characters and those who play black, and among the latter are some knockout performances. Kelli Blackwell plays Nanna, Mary’s faithful maidservant. At one point Mary asks Nanna, “Tell me how you came to be here.” Nanna tells of her daughter, Yema (Kanysha Williams), who was stolen from her by slave traders in Africa, and the scene shifts to a powerful musical number (“Yema’s Song”) in which we witness how African royalty, in this case ruthless Princess Peyai (a fierce Shannon E. Johnson), sold their own tribespeople to the traders.
So many other scenes also deserve mention.
There’s the exhilarating one set in the Abolitionist lair on High Street. There Mr. Tyler (Da’Von Moody), Rabbi Einhorn (Joshua Simon), Mr. Quigley (Jordan Campbell), and members of the Ensemble sing a song called “We Are Determined,” vowing to undermine the slave trade:
For we are determined to live and to die
For the freedom of those
That our nation denies
There’s the funny scene in a posh club when full-of-himself Major Gray (Wyn Delano), who fancies himself a suitor to Mary, tries to offer her an engagement ring (“Expectations”). She has zero interest in his proposal, and offers some clever cracks about men that the audience quite enjoyed.
There’s the weighty one of the slave auction, and the gripping one of slave capture.
There’s the heart-stopping, eye-popping one when the Newton family’s house slave Thomas rescues John from drowning—and we see them through a scrim suspended from Flying by Foy wires as if deep in the sea.
And there’s the turning point scene when John declares, “I came face to face with all my sins,” followed by the scene in which he asks Thomas for forgiveness—which Thomas reluctantly gives.
At this moment in our country’s history when powerful men are being exposed and publicly confronted and having to fess up to their mortifying failures as human beings, the example of scalding self-honesty and confession in this story of John Newton’s redemption has much to say that sorely needs saying.
The show is not quite shipshape. A few light cues seemed not yet certain; some of Christopher Gattelli’s choreography and David Leong fight choreography had not gelled. But the entire production is handsomely directed by Gabriel Barre, and visually the show is magnificent. Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes are lush in their textures and color palettes; Robert-Charles Vallance’s wig designs are spot on. And the uniformly clear and strong vocals are an absolute pleasure to hear.
Before the show, I looked for the orchestra pit and found there is none. The cast members sing live but all the beautiful orchestrations (by Kenny Seymour) and dramatic arrangements (by Joseph Church) are prerecorded and played back, with the same high fidelity as the striking effects in the sound design (by Shannon Slaton). To musical-theater-attuned ears, this can take a little getting used to; but one soon realizes that though the conductor’s job is done and gone, the emotions in the scoring are completely in sync with the emotions in the singers, and an array of speakers has been positioned and programmed to create a rich dimensionality and directionality beyond what typically can arise from a pit below the stage.
I found the theater staff to be among friendliest I’ve ever encountered. Another anomaly I noticed was that the audience was likely not a theater crowd; I guessed them to be folks seeing the show more because it was in a museum that had personal meaning for them. Perhaps as a result, their responses throughout—to the show’s dry humor, the cast’s spectacular singing—sounded somewhat subdued. (Or perhaps it was because the hall’s acoustics are better-suited to sound coming from on stage than from the house.) But soon as the show was over, the audience rose to their feet cheering and applauding. And at the very end of the curtain call, when the whole cast broke out in “Amazing Grace” and invited the audience to sing along, it was as deeply moving as hymn time in a house of worship on a holy day.
Running Time: Just under three hours, including one intermission.
Amazing Grace plays through January 7, 2018, at the World Stage Theater in the Museum of the Bible, 400 4th Street SW, Washington DC. Tickets, which include admission to the museum, can be purchased online.