In one of the show’s clunkier transitions, young John’s headstrong nature next displays itself when he hijacks a slave auction that his father has postponed and begins merrily selling the merchandise behind Dad’s back, to the horror of his longtime sweetheart, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), who is instantly converted to the abolitionist cause after witnessing the brutal branding of a pregnant slave. John shrugs off her disapproval: “It is what it is. I didn’t invent slavery.” (Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Giron’s book, while generally written in passable fake-Jane Austen English, does slip in the occasional anachronism.)
Mary’s disappointment in John also stems from his abandonment of his musical studies; once a prodigy who was composing music in his boyhood (she sings a bit of his ersatz Handel at a ball), he now swills gin and generally acts the boorish rebel. His waywardness is put down by Mary as being caused by the early death of his dear mother.
“Amazing Grace” isn’t particularly subtle when it comes to psychology, or, for that matter, exposition. Its characters often speak in talking points, as when Mary asks rhetorically, “Aren’t we accountable if we could help others, but choose not to?” When she meets up with an abolitionist leader, he lectures: “Before we go any further, you should know that we are not just a society for the improvement of slave conditions. We seek to abolish the trade completely and free all those in bondage.” His ally chimes in, “We will settle for nothing less than restoring the lives and dignity of these human beings.”
Nor does the plot avoid some faintly preposterous excesses. (Although it follows the basic outline of Newton’s life, liberties have been taken.) Major Gray (Chris Hoch), an aristocratic rival for Mary’s affections, connives to see that John is press-ganged into the Navy. John is taken away in chains — while his father looks on indifferently, now apparently hoping a few years at sea will help him man up — and later whipped for insubordination. This suffering, it is implied, awakens him to the brutal business his family has been profiting from.
The director, Gabriel Barre, has his hands full as the story line grows ever more complicated. Mary conspires with the abolitionists even as she consorts with Major Gray. Meanwhile, John receives more sobering instruction in the indignities faced by the slaves when his ship is sunk by the French. He and Thomas, the loyal servant (read: slave) who accompanied him aboard (portrayed with unshowy dignity by Chuck Cooper), find themselves under the control of the African Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy), herself a player in the slave trade.
While it is certainly colorful, not all of this is made plausible. Mr. Smith apportions a solo (or two) to each of the major characters, but most of them are baldly self-revealing anthems or ballads deep-dyed in clichés. “Can I ever return to the bridges I have burned?” sings a remorseful Captain Newton after learning that, despite news to the contrary, John is alive and well and now working for the princess in Sierra Leone. “Where will you go when there’s nowhere left to run?” Thomas sings to John, trying to awaken him to the evil he has done.
The singing, fortunately, is excellent — call it the show’s saving grace. Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Cooper, both stalwart musical theater veterans, give forceful renderings of their minimally drawn characters. Ms. Mackey’s pure, radiant soprano delights the ear, and she infuses Mary with a touching sincerity that helps make convincing the rather unnatural moral perfection of her character. Mr. Young’s tenor matches Ms. Mackey’s in its bright, limpid richness — although I couldn’t help but imagine that if a Ken doll could sing, its timbre would be similar.
Clarifying the confused impulses of his character, however, proves a tricky task. John’s conversion from slave trader to God-fearing abolitionist takes place whiplash-fast, and soon he’s joining Mary in eloquent speeches about the evils of slavery: “The conscience of humanity must someday awaken. And when this vile trade is finally abolished, history shall judge us all.”
“Amazing Grace,” thick with such moralizing, naturally concludes on a note of uplift, or rather many notes of uplift: a choral singing of the title song. And while the musical certainly gives animated (overanimated?) dramatic form to the history of its author, I’m not sure this knowledge really enhances our enjoyment of the hymn. The song is simple, beautiful, immortal; the musical, not so much.