It's hard to imagine a play focused on slavery putting slavery second, but that's what Amazing Grace does in favor of telling the redemption story about the man who penned the famous hymn. John Newton is a compelling character in his own right, but his undoing in this show comes from too much focus on the love story between him and his beloved Mary and not nearly enough attention paid to the fight of the abolitionists trying to rid England of oppression and maltreatment.
The play is set in the 18th-century with Newton (Josh Young) coming home to England with something to prove about his manhood and maturity. But Newton isn;t deserving of the spotlight from the start, at least not the way he's supposed to shine inside of Christopher Smith's book. And Arthur Giron's score doesn't do him any favors, as Young's songs are outmatched by his counterpart Mary's (played by Erin Mackey) emotional solos. What's hardest is to set aside Mary's struggles with unrequited love as there are bigger fish to fry. However, the play offers an imbalance between what you feel and what you think you're supposed to prioritize first and foremost, the plight of the enslaved person.
It's only during the song "We Are Determined" midway through the first act that your;e reminded of the stakes at play here and the troubling circumstances unfolding. What shines most through the darkness is Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce's sets that depict wondrously the point in time and place where our fellow man was treated as a lesser human. At certain times throughout the play you sense the cruelty even before a word is uttered or a move made; that's the power of theater that comes on display. Moreover, an underwater scene with incredible visual effect dominates the end of the first act that will leave you forgiving all other shortcomings of the early part of the play.
Still, it's hard to ignore the abolitionist movement developing and prospering, despite the play's hopes that you'll entertain a love story first and a struggle for freedom second. Pakuteh, played by Chuck Cooper, steps up and steps in when you might have forgotten the stakes at play here, and reminds you of the injustices taking place behind the scenes. Had there been more emphasis on him as a side character, a caregiver to the utmost degree, you might have recognized the hope emerging through all of the plain. Yet, as the play stands, it's difficult to get behind the message that through all of the mistakes and errors in judgment, John Newton is deserving of redemption from those he has crossed, and from the critical audience.
With so much depth and meaning to one of the most famous songs out there, you'd hope that the characters and story would lead you somewhere equally significant. Unfortunately, this musical gets lost along the way and can't find its way back home again.