Chris Peluso, Charles E. Wallace, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Tyrone Davis, Jr. and Jonathan Burke Amazing Grace photos by Diane Sobolewski.
Once upon a time, in 1996, Christopher Smith had some time to kill and was walking through the children’s section of the library in his hometown of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. As a police officer and Youth Outreach and Education Director, he was always on the lookout for stories to tell to children with teachable lessons. Taking a book at random off the shelf, one of literally thousands to choose from, he selected one about John Newton, a man born in the early 1700’s in England, a seaman, slave trader and later minister.
The book could have been about Curious George or Raggedy Andy. Instead the tale of John Newton, who gave the world the inspiring hymn Amazing Grace, changed Christopher Smith’s life in innumerable ways. So affected by this honest and compelling tale of one man who tried to unravel slavery in England, Smith set out on a journey he is still traveling sixteen years later.
Calling it an “epic sweep of story of conflict, romance and redemption, with a fair amount of humor,” Smith felt destined to tell John Newton’s compelling story. Comparing it to “Les Miserables,” although set in a different century in a different nation, Smith admits “I decided to do it myself. I knew no one in the theater so, without any limitations, I just started writing it the way I wanted to see it on stage.” Having had one semester of theater arts in college, as well as some high school productions, he simply sat down and went to work.
Fast forward a decade and Christopher Smith is giving a guitar lesson to a prominent Bucks County, Pennsylvania businessman, Rich Timmons, who asked him what he was doing in his spare time. The gentleman loved the idea of the musical and took it, all five songs and story outline, to “every person I know to raise dollars” and soon there was a team of local supporters on board.
Now six years later, after several readings in New York City, even one at the Empire State Building, utilizing some of the cast of “Les Miz” ironically, Smith’s dream of “Amazing Grace” will be mounted from Thursday, May 17 to Sunday, June 10 at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, a venue dedicated to nurturing new musicals and five busloads of those loyal supporters from Pennsylvania will be in attendance on opening weekend.
For tickets ($43), call Goodspeed Musicals at 860-873-8668 or go online to www.goodspeed.org. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (8 p.m. on May 17), Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Among Christopher’s staunchest cheerleaders is his wife Alana, who just gave birth to their third child six months ago. Whereas John Newton always had the faith of his childhood friend Mary Catlett, who was destined to be his wife, Smith credits Alana with encouraging him to pursue his passion, even to resigning from the police force to follow his dream.
At the Norma Terris helping to make that dream a reality are his mentor and co-author Arthur Giron, director Gabriel Barre, producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland, music supervisor Kimberly Grigsby, musical director Jodie Moore, orchestrator Kenny J. Seymour, set designer Beowulf Boritt, choreographer Benoit-Swan Pouffer, fight director David Leong, lighting Ken Billington, sound Jay Hilton and costumer Toni-Leslie James. Add to that a cast of twenty-seven whom Chris calls “fabulous, exceeding all my expectations” and you can understand why he is one happy fellow.
“Amazing Grace” focuses on a point of resonance in John Newton’s life, revealing a man who wants to be loved despite his failures. It is “a journey of self-discovery into a heart of darkness, where John hears the voice of a person who always believed in him, Mary, and how he comes out the other side.” It is one man’s suffering and struggle to end slavery in England and how he transforms himself from salve trader to pastor.
On New Year’s Day in 1774, he wrote the song Amazing Grace for his congregation, never realizing what a profound effect and message it would hold for future generations. Today there are 27 million children and adults all over the world still in bondage. There is a dedication in the playbill honoring abolitionists everywhere for their work in the name of justice.
This epic undertaking that deals with relationships of father and son, master and slave, husband and wife, slavery and freedom, success and failure, has touched Christopher Smith’s life in a multitude of ways that Curious George or Raggedy Andy never could have. Godspeed to Christopher Smith and his team at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre.