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‘Amazing Grace’ Broadway Review: Famous Hymn’s Backstory Doesn’t Sing in New Musical

The show postpones Barack Obama’s favorite tune to the finale, offering a long and dull history lesson with a score heavy on bombastic anthems

In Hollywood parlance, they call it “medicine”: a movie or TV show that’s good for you, that teaches you something, that hopefully leaves you inspired.

“Amazing Grace,” which opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre, is definitely medicine — and it will teach you something about abolitionist history in 18th-century England, which makes it much more educational than any other musical now on Broadway with the possible exception of the soon-to-open “Hamilton.”

Most theatergoers have heard of Alexander Hamilton but not John Newton, the subject of “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s is a very different and much more arcane story. Who knew that in the 1770s Newton wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” most recently sung by Barack Obama to fabulous reviews, after having been a top-notch slave trader?

Erin Mackey and Josh Young / Credit: Joan Marcus

Erin Mackey and Josh Young / Credit: Joan Marcus

Regarding “Amazing Grace,” multi-hyphenate Christopher Smith can be credited for not bringing yet another movie or comic-book adaptation to the musical stage. In his Broadway debut, he’s the show’s “concept creator, composer, lyricist and co-author of the book [with Arthur Giron],” according to the Playbill.

Chalk one up for educational content, which is always good for you. I came away from the show having learned something.

But is “Amazing Grace” inspirational and, more important, does it hold one’s interest? Two and a half hours is not inordinately long for a musical these days, although a few are beginning to clock in at the current play length of 90 minutes sans intermission.

Under Gabriel Barre’s direction, “Amazing Grace” feels like a long adult-ed lecture or a night at “Parsifal.”

Smith ends his musical with a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace,” but the rest of the score utterly lacks Newton’s simplicity and instead treads heavily in the current Broadway vogue for bombastic anthems coupled with a strong percussive element that’s meant to send audiences to their feet applauding, if not marching up the aisles.

As performed by Josh Young, Newton is a racist cad and he stays that way almost to the end — despite any number of calamities that would transform, if not completely squash, any normal human being. (The show is chockablock with effectively staged shipwrecks, near drownings and battle scenes.)

Joan Marcus

Joan Marcus

Actually, there is one remarkable conversion early in Act 2, when Newton is captured by an African slave-trading princess (Harriett D. Foy, giving a camp performance, provides the show’s few moments of levity). With his wig no longer combed back in a long ponytail, Young resembles Patty Duke groveling on the ground in “The Miracle Worker.” He also possesses an impressive baritone, which he pushes at the top to sound like Idina Menzel.

Since Newton’s character is something of a flat-liner, the arc of the show really belongs to Newton’s love interest, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey, displaying a pretty if thin operatic voice). Mary has qualms about the abolitionist movement — basically, she doesn’t want to go to prison or be executed — but makes the jump to the good-guys camp well before the intermission.

In their final exchange, Mary asks Newton why “it took you so long” to give up his slave-trader ways. Theatergoers will be asking that question much earlier.