The Fields of Ambrosia

Fields-of-AmbrosiaOriginal London Cast, 1996 (First Night) 3 Stars (3 / 5) A curious musical with a curious history: It opened in New Jersey to respectable reviews, traveled to London for a sort of protracted New York tryout, was critically trounced there, and left behind this cast album. It’s also unusual in that the lyricist-librettist, Joel Higgins, is the star — and did he write himself a juicy part! As Jonas Candide (perhaps too symbolically named?), a “traveling executioner” who carts a primitive electric chair to penitentiaries in the American South of 1918, Higgins displays one of the finest voices in musical theater, though it has generally been confined to flops and replacement casts. Here, he makes an indelible impression early on in the title number, as he offers con-man comfort to a death-row inmate just before throwing the switch. Jonas has the misfortune of falling in love with another doomed inmate, a German immigrant accused of murder. Since she’s portrayed by Christine Andreas, who also possesses a great legit voice, you know you’re in for an earful. With her vocal finesse and considerable acting chops, Andreas shines in the intense “Who Are You?” and in two fine duets with Higgins, “Too Bad” and “Continental Sunday.” The uneven but often strong music is by Martin Silvestri; this is a score that glows when it focuses on the principals but goes somewhat slack in the ensembles. As Jonas’ adoring disciple, Marc Joseph has another stunning solo, “Alone,” and the orchestrations by Harold Wheeler are first-rate throughout. But both acts open with chorales for the prisoners that are as predictable as they are one-dimensional, and when Jonas tries to scare up some money to save his ladylove by appealing to American jingoism (“All in This Together”), the number has a perfunctory air to it. British critics objected mainly to the show’s now-tragic, now-comic tone, and its moral ambiguity, qualities (or deficiencies) that don’t really help or hurt this recording. What does emerge is a flawed but intriguing, ambitious attempt at a serious, original, large-scale American musical. Given most of the product of the mid-1990s, that’s nothing to scoff at. — Marc Miller