Reviewed by David Spencer
"The Fields of Ambrosia" is a musical that has had a long, tough road to earn its imminent London premiere (January 31 at the Aldwych in the West End). But it has the advantage of a solid, successful regional production behind it (at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in 1993); a clear vision of what it wants to be; a rich Americana-type score that maintains a savvy contemporary sensibility; a terrific story...and one of the best, most underrated leading men (and also, on a personal note, one of the nicest fellows) in the business, Joel Higgins--who, interestingly enough, is also author of the book and lyrics. (The composer is Martin Silvestri.) And Britain's First Night Records has just released an advance CD of four songs from the score, featuring the stars of the show and full orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Whether this preview is First Night's idea (featuring excerpts from a larger album to follow), or a merchandising gambit bankrolled by the show's producers (an ambitious demo) is not apparent. But it's a smart idea and makes a compelling case for the quality of the rest of the show.
From the press release: "Set in rural Louisiana in 1918, `The Fields of Ambrosia' tells an extraordinary love story. Jonas Candide (Mr. Higgins), a formal carnival con man, falls head over heels for Gretchen (Christine Andreas), the most alluring woman he's ever met. But there are complications. Jonas is now the state executioner and Gretchen is destined to be his next "client." As the clock ticks down the days, Jonas schemes to set her free before he must carry out her sentence."
What's exciting about the thumbnail description is how immediately the situation, and the leading character, are both human and larger-than-life. What's unfortunate is that the album's jewel-box pamphlet only contains lyrics, no notes or plot summary. And I'm not sure the parameters of the tale are quite clear from the album's 16 or so minutes of material. Not on a first listening, anyway, though repeated listenings may begin to paint enough of a picture.
Once painted, though, the picture is terribly interesting. The first song, the title song, shows Jonas in action, dealing with a client, selling him on the idea of his own imminent death. How? By bringing to bear all his skills as a con man to describe the unbeatable afterlife that awaits.
Song #2 is "Continental Sunday" in which Jonas and Gretchen fantasize about where they would go and what they would do if they were a romantic couple.
Song #3 is "Alone" sung by that ubiquitous player of musical theatre neurotics, Eddie Korbich. Mr. Korbich's powerful tenor is put to typically intense use here as he sings his character's sad history. Sad because his whole life he's been shunned and overlooked by people. A fact of which he is reminded every time he practices his trade on a new client. For you see, he's a mortician.
Song #4, "Too Bad" is a sad little waltz, as Jonas and Gretchen try to be philosophical about what fate has in store for them.
The music has a nice Americana sweep to it, and the lyrics have the ring of storytelling musical theatre in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition; however, the sensibility remains contemporary, and R&H tradition does not mean R&H imprimatur. Stylistically, Higgins and Silvestri are certainly influenced--but they're not beholden.
Because the lyrics are so easily demotic and countrified, their wit is more subtle than surface. One can smile indulgently at the carny barker's assurance that "In the Fields of Ambrosia / Everyone knows ya!"--but upon repeated listenings, you realize just how subtly persuasive Jonas can be when he's not cagily rhyming, and simply choosing the right image--for his pitch, for his job, for the setting, and indeed, for the locution of the show: "And you sit by a crik and go fishin' forever." Or: "No worries a'tall 'cept maybe what nectar to drink."
As a musical dramatist myself, I do find places in the score where I quibble with the craftsmanship, or the odd choice here and there. And normally I'd pause to note such things. But all such considerations are overridden by the impression that the focus is tight and assured; that the right things, dramaturgically speaking, are being sung about; and that what Higgins and Silvestri have on their hands is an audience pleaser that doesn't cheat.
The performances are as persuasive as the material. There could not be a more charming hustler than Mr. Higgins, nor a more alluring death-row prisoner than Ms. Andreas--who shares with her leading man the dubious distinction of being underrated, underused and underappreciated. But maybe "The Fields of Ambrosia" will change all that.
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