‘Grace' Traces Path of Slave Trader Who Would Write a Celebrated Hymn

A one-time Pennsylvania police officer and Broadway newcomer is the composer and lyricist of “Amazing Grace,” an earnest and well-intentioned original musical about the creation of the famous Christian hymn by British poet John Newton.

More to the point, “Amazing Grace” focuses on Newton as a bratty young man in the 1740s, when he was truly the self-proclaimed “wretch” of that hymn’s first stanza. The spiritual -- recently sung by the president at a eulogy for the Charleston shooting victims -- isn’t heard until the musical’s final moments.

Now open at the Nederlander, “Amazing Grace” stars Josh Young (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) as Newton and Chuck Cooper (“The Life”) as his slave, Thomas. Christopher Smith is the ambitious cop-turned-playwright who has shepherded “Amazing Grace” through a 7-year journey, including two out-of-town runs.

Young, a charismatic leading man, made Judas Iscariot likable in “Superstar,” and is a fine choice as Newton, another man with dangerous contradictions. John Newton is an anti-hero, whom we meet when he steps in to help his father sell slaves at an auction that’s soon rushed by Abolitionists.

Writer Smith (sharing book credit with Arthur Giron) piles on a lot to explain why John is a rebellious man: His mother died when he was young … His love interest, Mary (the appealing Erin Mackey, of “Chaplin”), comes from a broken family that wants to marry her off to a pompous British major (Chris Hoch).

There is, as well, John’s relationship with his absentee sea captain father (Tom Hewitt, better used here than in “Doctor Zhivago”). After the auction debacle, Captain Newton banishes John to sea for 5 years, a decision that comes with tragic consequences and sets in motion a familiar tale of father-son redemption.

Because most of the relationships are musical theater tropes, they tend to drag on the pacing.

The tone of scenes in the first act oscillates wildly, from striking and severe -- particularly the difficult images of chained slaves being branded -- to overly smug and smirky (Hoch is fun, though he seems to be channeling King George from “Hamilton”). The songs are confident, if not quite memorable -- the best being “Truly Alive,” early on.

Things get more lively at the halfway point, after Thomas helps John survive a shipwreck off the coast of Africa (it’s a swell bit of staging, adeptly handled by director Gabriel Barre). In a racial role reversal, John finds himself held prisoner by a fiery African princess (Harriett D. Foy, electrifying the stage with her cruelty).

As the two-act musical nears its end, Cooper (below) has satisfying moments confronting the young man who has enslaved him his entire life; mostly, though, the slaves aren’t particularly sketched out. I loved Laiona Michelle’s Nanna, Mary’s “maid,” who has made a bitter peace with the loss of her daughter.

Young accomplishes a neat trick, introducing us to a man who is so wounded by his mother’s death that he refuses to believe in a merciful God. His epiphany comes later, after he both spurs and endures more awfulness -- and realizes he has been spared, though he no longer believes he should be.

The idea is that any God who would save him must be a merciful one.

In an epilogue, Cooper steps out of character to explain that John and Mary lived out the rest of their lives as a married couple, and that in 1772 Newton finally finished “Amazing Grace.” Young begins an a cappella version of the song, and is joined by the rest of the cast.

Within a minute, some audience members were standing with an evangelical hand raised to God. The moment is as lump-in-the-throat as it sounds. It seemed disconnected from the rest of the musical, and was the first time during “Amazing Grace” my emotions were truly stirred.

“Amazing Grace,” with an open-ended run at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets: $65-$139. Call Ticketmaster at 866-870-2717.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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