Top Hat premieres ‘Amazing Grace’

Brian Palumbo’s persistence paid off. Top Hat Productions will be the first community theater to stage “Amazing Grace.”

The musical, which ran on Broadway in 2015, tells the story of John Newton, the son of a slave trader who forsakes the family business after an epiphany at sea. Newton ends up becoming a priest and the composer of hymns, including the song that gives the musical its title.

“I’ve been pretty much begging from the first time I saw it in Chicago, when it was in previews before Broadway,” Palumbo said. “We are a bridge-building ministry here. We do community theater to be able to do other things. All the money goes back into the community. We feed the homeless once a month. We give free arts programming in the summer.”

Much of Top Hat’s mission involves bringing together people from different ethnic backgrounds, and the story of a former slave trader turned Christian abolitionist complemented that mission.

“Once I realized what it was, it was something we had to tell,” Palumbo said.

Palumbo wrote to the producers, who were not encouraging and told him it would be several years before the show would be available.

“I kept writing back, letting them know about our mission and how it was a great fit for our theater,” he said. “They pretty much agreed to give us the rights when it was still on tour, which is very rare.”

Palumbo, who is directing the production, said they had good response to auditions, and the cast includes several local theater veterans and some making their first appearance with Top Hat.

The cast features Anthony Villa, Bill Marr, Jessica Murphy, James Locker, Antonio Bonilla, Joe Borzacchiello, Aundrea Cika Heschmeyer, Darlene Griffin, Nikita Jones, Monique Jordan, Taeshawn Madison, Alan McCreary, Liz Samuel, Mark Samuel, Gene Seifert, Tylor Zuniga and a 12-person ensemble.

The biggest challenge has been clothing a large cast for a show set in the 18th century.

“We needed 70-plus costumes,” Palumbo said. “There’s more than 30 in the cast, and they all have multiple costume changes or at least multiple piece changes. They’re all made in house. We had 15 sewing for this show.”

The director said he hopes audiences take advantage of the opportunity to see musical’s first community theater presentation.

“This is a must-see production, whether you’re looking at it from the Christian aspect or for the song ‘Amazing Grace’ or from a historical aspect,” Palumbo said. “Everyone knows the song. This is the story of the man came to write the words that he did.”

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