From choir concerts to funeral processions, the musical notes of “Amazing Grace” are generally recognized by Americans. Written in 1779 by John Newton, the history of this renowned song has often gone unnoticed — until now.
Broadway in Chicago is putting on the new musical Amazing Grace at the Bank of America Theatre (18 W. Monroe St.). The play brings light to the story of Newton’s spiritual journey and the resulting birth of one of America’s favorite songs.
Actor Josh Young plays Newton, a school dropout who continually tries to prove his worth to his father. Newton gets wrapped up in the trade business, but trading at this time was mostly of slaves. Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) is Newton’s longtime friend and love interest. When she learns the rough reality of what Newton is trading, she joins a rebel movement to stop the injustice.
Before the show began, a large British flag hung at the front of the stage. On the sides of the stage were two large columns, which were made to look like the masts of a ship. As the play began and the British flag disappeared, the audience could see that the whole stage was made to look like a ship.
A few more masts were placed in the back of the stage and a curtain was used to unroll a large sail. Most of the play occurred on a ship or a loading dock, but in the fews scenes that didn’t take place on a boat, the large ship setting came across as awkward. The actors were cramped because they had to avoid the large ship masts onstage.
At one point, almost all of the characters are at a ball. All of the women in their voluminous dresses danced around in the arms of the men, but the boat structure constrained where they could go. Without the use of the entire stage, the dance numbers came across as tight and uncomfortable. There was also no way of hiding the huge masts in the background. The ball took place at Christmas time, so the creative team used some holiday decorations during this scene, but covering up a tall column with a small wreath wasn’t enough to indicate the setting had changed.
Although the set was a hit-or-miss, the singing was always a hit. The opening song “Truly Alive” was sung by Young, who has a powerful voice. Every note was hit perfectly and reverberated throughout the theater. This first song fills in the exposition of the story well, but because only Young was singing, the song didn’t give off the excitement that musical opening numbers usually do.
A lot of the cast was present onstage for this first scene, but most of them merely stood around during the opening number. Young was energetic as he ran about, but the opening act would have turned out better if there were more voices that joined in.
Another standout singing performance came from Mackey. Mackey has a beautiful soprano voice, which could be subtle in slower-paced songs or very powerful in others. In songs such as “Tell Me Why,” Mackey ends on a high note, with the voices of the ensemble characters in the background to help fill the entire theater with a powerful composition.
Other scenes that stood out were ones with special effects such as bombs and gunshots. The best instance of this is when Newton has a near-death experience when his ship is bombed and he falls into the ocean unconscious.
When the bombing began, overhead lights flashed to red, and large plumes of smoke rose around the stage. All of the action left the audience members on the edge of their seats. Suddenly, the stage went quiet and a thin, translucent curtain came down in the middle of the stage. A blue-green light was cast upon the curtain, making it seem like everything behind it was underwater.
Newton then slowly propels from a wire at the top of the stage down to the bottom, giving the effect that he is falling to the bottom of the ocean floor. As a whole, the scene used innovative techniques that overcame any dull moments the 18th century play may have had
In all, Amazing Grace is a diverse play that caters to the interests of history buffs and musical theater fans alike. Despite the awkward staging, the singing and the creative special effects made up for it. The ending number “Amazing Grace” is sung by the whole company, and each diverse voice harmonizes together to sum up the the historical, spiritual play that brings to light the story of an acclaimed hymn.
Amazing Grace runs through Nov. 2 at The Bank of America Theatre (18 W. Monroe St.). Tickets range from $32-87 and are available for purchase here.