Review | Amazing Grace

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Two weeks ago I took my wife to New York City for our 10-year anniversary. It was the first time either of us had been to NYC, and so naturally we were obliged to take in some Broadway while there. We’ve both seen plenty of stage shows here in Toronto and abroad, and while we would have certainly enjoyed one of the regular mainstays, I decided to plan something a little different. I had read Eric Metaxas’ glowing review of Amazing Grace, the backstory of John Newton (author of the song), and decided that was it. We were in for an absolute feast.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

We all know the song, but I for one had no idea just how much of a wretch John Newton actually was. John was an English sailor, the son of a slave trader, who eventually become a slave trader himself. Newton almost drowned in a shipwreck, and called out to God to save him. He eventually experienced a significant conversion event and in the end became a priest and leading abolitionist, penning the beloved hymn that we all know. The reality of course is that each of us suffer from the same selfish pride and sin, so we can all sing of our wretchedness, but watching John Newton’s journey play out was remarkably powerful.

I am not yet the man I will become, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.

Amazing Grace leveraged incredible performances, heart-stopping choreography, moving songs, and some very impressive stagecraft. Playing in the Nederlander, which is quite small, any seat is a good seat. The stage was framed in the masts and rigging of a tall ship, and the curtain opens to a small seaside town. We are introduced to John’s father, the gruff seaman and slaver, John himself, John’s childhood sweetheart, and John’s slave, Thomas. From there, the action travels from English towns, to ships at sea, to Africa, the Caribbean, and back. The first act ends with the aforementioned shipwreck, which is performed some of the best use of theatrical effects I have ever seen.

The second act opens in Africa, with dances performed by African villagers which are equally impressive to the end of the first act, though entirely different. The entire cast were stellar, absolutely excellent in song, dance and speech. The story is well paced, and had me practically on the end of my seat a short way in. I was frequently in tears at the rawness, emotion, power and eventually love, that was on display. No punches are pulled regarding the evils of the slave trade.

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

John’s conversion to Christianity is handled with the utmost care, and should not put off unbelievers. What overt religious content there is is aimed squarely in the face of hypocritical religious piety, with one particularly memorable and poignant scene involving an African princess suggesting that if John Newton refuses to read from the Bible for her, he will become the second person to have died due to that book; he retorts that she could have no idea just how many people have died because of it. When at least John sees his own human frailty, and the evils of the slave trade, we are all brought along and helped to “see” the human journey of failure and redemption.

All told, I loved the show. I cried, laughed, clapped and cheered, and then fully snot-faced wept at the end when the whole crowd rose to join the cast in singing Amazing Grace. As a theatre lover, an actor, a writer, and a Christian, I felt it was entertainment par excellence.

The musical was conceptualized, composed and written by Christopher Smith, a former policeman and youth outreach director. It opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway in July of this year, and the Sunday matinee we saw last weekend was to a packed house. Do yourselves a serious favour and get on down to New York at your next opportunity and go see Amazing Grace. It really is amazing.