Crimes of the Art

Stanley Bahorek, Harriett D. Foy, and Tom Hewitt in "Amazing Grace." | JOAN MARCUS

Stanley Bahorek, Harriett D. Foy, and Tom Hewitt in “Amazing Grace.” | JOAN MARCUS

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Even a cursory reading of history reveals that the story of slave trader turned evangelist John Newton as portrayed in the new musical “Amazing Grace” is incorrect. The show posits that, as a result of a spiritual experience in the middle of a near-shipwreck, Newton became a devout Christian and severed all ties to his business. Not quite. While Newton claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, he remained a slave trader. When he could no longer go to sea, he remained an investor in the slave trade for many years. That actually makes more sense, because up until 1807, the British cited the Bible as a defense of slavery. But when did a fact get in the way of religious proselytizing? Veering off course with history is not the only false element of this soulless show now at the Nederlander.

Book writers Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron go to great lengths to show that slavery was bad, and that black people abetted the slave trade, so it’s not just white people who are bad. They try to show that abolitionists were good, but the whole turgid mess is a failed attempt to force contemporary sensibilities into a period drama, and it just doesn’t work. The script is heavy on pronouncements and light on believable characters. Worse, the subplot of a son at conflict with his father is predictably bland and never resolved. Cartoonish vignettes show us Newton as a rebellious youth, a would-be entrepreneur, a man pressed into naval service, captured and put at the service of African traders, and then converted on his sea voyage. While the musical sells itself on the back story of how Newton came to write the classic hymn, we only learn that Newton wrote it as a kind of epilogue to the story. Prior to the moment when the hymn is announced, we never have a clue that Newton is musically inclined, even though he sings a lot.

His songs are derivative, lung-busting '80s power ballads. The music, by the same Smith who wrote the book, is simplistic in its construction, immature in its lyrics, and instantly forgettable. To the show’s meager credit, director Gabriel Barre, has created some great stage pictures, worthy of a church-school filmstrip, including an underwater sequence. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli should be embarrassed by his generic native dancing, which borders on racist stereotype, that lets us know we’re in Africa. He generally does better.

Though the score is bilge, the cast sings it well. Chuck Cooper, as Newton’s friend (slave), has an outstanding baritone. Josh Young, as Newton, sings the insipid songs beautifully, though his acting is non-existent and mostly focuses on flipping his hair in the second act. Laiona Michelle, as Nanna, another slave and servant to heroine abolitionist Mary Catlett, is magnificent, and Erin Mackey, as Mary, has a truly crystalline soprano that elevates the music way beyond what it deserves.

In “Gypsy,” Mama Rose knows that if she has Dainty June wave an American flag at the end of her ghastly vaudeville act, everyone will applaud. Because who would boo the American flag, right? That’s exactly how it feels when the entire company comes downstage at the end to sing “Amazing Grace.” Who could possibly be critical of that? Well, me, for one. The powerful simplicity and beauty of that famous hymn illuminates how sinfully flawed the rest of this god-forsaken show is.

Stories about sisters in conflict have been a stock theatrical device since “King Lear,” and probably before. It’s ground trod by Chekhov, Beth Henley, Tracy Letts, and many others. If you’re going do the strained sibling thing, you better do something original.

You should at least be better at it than Melissa Ross whose new play “Of Good Stock” is now at Manhattan Theatre Club. The story of three girls whose father was a deceased literary lion of an Updike or Cheever stripe (from what little one can glean) who have gathered at the family house, now left to one daughter, for a birthday celebration.

Ross proves herself inept at even the basics of exposition as the long first scene between the inheriting daughter, Jess, and her husband laboriously lays out the sisters and their relationships. It’s never clear why they want to spend time together, but family being what it is, that’s never a productive line of inquiry. The problem is they’re all boring. Cancer, narcissism, rebellion, and the bonds of sisterhood are just plain dull. Ross never develops the characters beyond sketches, and they bounce around from kitchen to beach and back again until the play runs out of steam, and we can all go home. Conflicts are alluded to but never developed.

It is to the credit of Kelly AuCoin, as Fred, and Jennifer Mudge, as Jess, that this is even remotely tolerable. They are both charming and focused actors who make a believable married couple and that will have to do. Heather Lind, as the youngest daughter Celia, has an easy naturalism, but she’s saddled with clunky lines. Alicia Silverstone, as Amy, the middle sister, does Amy’s selfishness and second act catharsis well — but who cares when the character is so shallow?

The character I was rooting for was Josh, played by the always-appealing Greg Keller, who is engaged to Amy. Halfway through the first act, he looks around, sees how life will be with these harpies and makes a beeline for the exit. Playwright Ross tries to punish Josh with some gratuitous plot points, but we know the truth, and we both resent and respect him for getting out while he could.