Musical numbers: “Ball and Chain/Jonas’ Theme,” “The Fields of Ambrosia,” “Some Days/How Could This Happen?,” “Nuthin’,” “My Name’s Candide,” “Who Are You?,” “Reasonable Man,” “Step Right Up.” “Too Bad,” “That Rat Is Dead,” “Hungry ,” “Continental Sunday,” “Nuthin’/Hungry,” “Alone,” “The Card Game,” “Do It For Me,” “All in This Together.”
Just when you thought West End musicals were too dull for words — you don’t get much more earnest than “Jolson” — along comes “The Fields of Ambrosia” to revive a giddy tradition of lulus that veterans of “Leonardo,” “Which Witch” and the like will knowfull well. A remounting of a show first seen at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, the musical marks the West End debuts of a lot of Americans — producer, director and stars included — and advances the careers of virtually none of them. Let’s just hope their Stateside apartments have not been sublet on too long a lease, or they may find it a long, cold winter indeed when “Fields” joins its leading characters in the great beyond.
The show’s final image shows its principals united happily in the sweet afterlife represented by the Ambrosian fields. But the moment merely nails the lid on an evening consisting of one kitsch classic after another. The opening “Ball and Chain,” sung by a glowering chorus of prisoners who look like rejects from a road show of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; the lascivious act-two opener, “Hungry,” in which the same chorus slavers over the comely, condemned inmate Gretchen Herzallerliebst (!) (Christine Andreas); the flag-waving “All In this Together,” which plays like some weird parody of the first-act finale to “Les Miz” and seems guaranteed to take an English public’s nascent anti-Americanism to newly over heights.
Inspired by an obscure Stacy Keach film, the show is a vanity vehicle of sorts for its putative American “star,” Joel Higgins, who doubles as librettist and lyricist with composer Martin Silvestri. It’s probably most polite to say that Higgins has done himself no favors, though one wonders how any performer could make sense of an increasingly desperate plot.
Playing a state executioner named Jonas who gets the electric chair intended for his beloved Gretchen, Higgins is hard-working and charmless in equal measure. So, too, are lyrics — “the fields of ambrosia/where everybody knows ya” — set to music so deafeningly amplified, and dully orchestrated by Harold Wheeler, that it is virtually impossible to assess a score disguised as a screamathon.
A few numbers have a pleasing country-music twang that suggests its creators might be at home writing a bio-musical of Patsy Cline. All too many, though, are bellowed across the footlights by a cast staring the audience down in the best Hal Prince tradition. (Director Gregory S. Hurst knows his “Evita” and “Sweeney Todd.”) When Higgins gets too grating — that’s to say, from the first scene onward — he at least has two gifted performers to whom to cede center stage. I haven’t seen Andreas since her Tony-nominated performance in “On Your Toes,” and she’s no less winning more than a decade on.
As Jonas’ sidekick, Jimmy, Marc Joseph gets the evening’s second-biggest round of applause on his solo, “Alone.” (What difference that the song follows a scene of sexual, uh, interference that makes solitude seem far the preferable option.’) But the biggest hand is reserved for a scurrying rat. Well, it’s that kind of evening.