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A CurtainUp Review
Despairingly real events and dastardly doings are primarily afoot under the superb direction of Gabriel Barre. The compelling story follows the head-strong and brash Newton's defiance of his autocratic father Captain Newton (Splendid performance by Tom Hewitt, the owner of a slave trading company, through his progressive misfortunes and eventual redemption.
The musical asks the question: Will he at long last earn the respect of the beautiful Mary (Erin Mackey) the woman he has loved since his youth? Well, we know the answer. But this comes after years of profiting in the slave trade, well learned from the family-run business in Chatham, England. It is Newton's willful misadventures and his misguided values that make him an interesting if also atypical anti-hero.
There is curiously little to like or admire about this otherwise good-looking chap. e The Newton we first meet is a tenacious and arrogant young man. His testy relationship with the inflexible father sends him off to sea on one of the slave ships as punishment. While rooting for Newton isn't easy, but Young, whose performance as Judas in the most recent revival of Jesus Christ Superstar earned him a Tony nomination delivers a sturdy, emotion-fueled performance that is further buoyed by his robust singing.
If you were fortunate to see and hear Mackey as Johanna in Lincoln Center's Sweeney Todd and/or as Oona in Chaplin , you can now see her radiance on display here as a brave young woman who chooses activism as her ethical duty in the morally corrupt society in which she lives. Part of that radiance is now coming from the resplendent gowns designed for her by Toni-Leslie James.
The concise, reasonably romanticized book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron presumably takes some liberties with the facts surrounding Newton's change of heart as well as with some of the reasons for his political and religious awakening. It is also quite admirably neither compromises nor white-washes the deplorable decisions Newton makes and digressive courses he takes on his path to his spiritual awakening. Long abandoned are the songs and poems he wrote in his youth and which initially sparked Mary's love for him.
This show clearly follows the diverging paths taken by Newton and his despairing sweetheart. Their stories are structured to run parallel but they also steer a straight course toward a mutual destiny. Newton's harrowing experiences as a slave trader finds him caught in a blistering relationship with a seductive and also brutal African princess (a chilling Harriett D. Foy). This affords an opportunity for some vibrant tribal dancing by choreographer Christopher Gattelli which adds a pulsating texture to the scenes set in Sierra Leone and on the island of Barbados. In England, Mary agrees to be a spy for a group of abolitionists and becomes the girlfriend of the aristocrat Major Gray (a drolly supercilious performance by Chris Hoch) who condones the slave trade. Laiona Michelle as Mary's protector/nursemaid slave Nanna is a standout.
A huge unit setting of masts, ropes and pulleys by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce provides multiple locations with ease. All are dramatically lighted by Ken Billington & Paul Miller. Credit also sound designer Jon Weston for the many crashes and booms along the way that help thrill the thrill-seekers in two spectacularly staged scenes: A sudden attack at sea by rival French slavers that sends Newton overboard and drowning, with an awesome undersea rescue i by Newton's devoted slave Thomas (a touching and memorable performance by the always excellent Chuck Cooper.) . . . In the second act a ferocious hurricane cripples the vessel but not the crew leading to Newton's epiphany. It is also the cue for the full ensemble to sing the title song and the musical's impassioned ending.
It is quite laudable that this first professional writing of Smith whom shall we say has covered all the bases (save for the title hymn and an appropriately integrated "Hail Britannia"). It remains to be seen whether his lilting arias and stirring anthems and the the impressive text will ultimately validate him as a major musical find? What I do know is that Smith and his production associates have given us an amazing show with an abundance of grit and grace.