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Death Takes a Holiday
Even for those who are familiar with the original, or more likely with the notable film versions (one in 1934 with Frederic March and Evelyn Venable and the more recent 1998 adaptation Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt,) will admit that the hoary story is just a lot of hooey. But let's assume that as romantic fools we can be intrigued by the idea that Death having grown tired of his daily routine takes human form in order to experience love. In the guise of a dashing Russian prince (the last person to die in the world) he arrives at a villa where he instantly falls in love with a beautiful noblewoman (and she with him) — despite the fact that she is in the midst of celebrating her engagement.
One's appraisal and/or approval of this latest version, presumably dedicated to commemorating the style of an old fashioned operetta, will depend upon your acceptance of it as an allegory about the power of eternal love. Be forewarned that this whimsically embraced musical is calculated to defend that pretense until death. Also know that it is to that end that the plot is populated with an assemblage of amusingly assertive but one-dimensional characters. They include the two ultra romantically swept-away leads who have been deigned to lift Death Takes a Holiday out of the prescribed limitations set by the musical's collaborators.
With its lovely décor and period-perfect trappings as designed by Derek McLane and the gorgeous haute couture by Catherine Zuber, our eyes certainly welcome the sight and movements of all the residents and their guests ,as well as the staff at the Villa Felicita, on a lakeside in Northern Italy in the summer of 1921. But are we willing to suspend our disbelief and be seduced by this musical's unabashed pretensions?
As a lover of vintage musicals, I am always eager to respond emotionally to the sentimental excesses of The Student Prince, The Desert Song, even the giddiness of Naughty Marietta. So what is it about Death Takes a Holiday that prevented me from being whisked away, if only by the sheer force of its imposed rapture?
Far be it from me to suggest that the basic story is simply too sappy and quaint for our time and era. As I don't want to spoil the set-up, let,s just say that an unfazed and unscathed Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice) finds her way back to her family after an accident in which she is flung from a car and disappears. It's no accident that brings Death, a.k.a Prince Nikolai Sirki (Julian Ovenden), to the villa to announce to Grazia,s parents Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Michael Siberry) and his wife Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Rebecca Luker) that he is staying for the weekend. However, Death can't fool the Duke or the ever eaves-dropping Majordomo Fidele (Don Stephenson), or even Grazia's slightly demented grandmother Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (Linda Balgord).
Worth noting is how many extraordinary performers have been assigned supporting roles, each of whom have ample opportunities to distinguish themselves both musically and dramatically. Ever devoted to the Contessa is Dr. Dario Albione, as played with his predictably wry inflections by Simon Jones. Either unnerved and/or suspicious of the stranger are Grazia's fiancé Corrado Montelli (Max Von Essen) and Major Eric Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh) who flew with Grazia's late brother. Supplying some diversions from the increasingly worrisome, all-consuming and visible passion that links Grazia with Prince Nikolai are Grazia,s widowed sister-in-law Alice Lamberti (Mara Davi) and Major Fenton,s precocious (to put it mildly) younger sister Daisy (Alexandra Socha). Also bracing are the comical intrusions supplied by the remaining household staff (Patricia Noonan and Joy Hermalyn.)
Although the musical,s history began with collaborators Yeston and Stone who authored Titanic. Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray) was recruited to take over when Stone died in 2003. What was conceived and has now been executed is an adaptation that could be called "retrovisionist," in that it makes no excuses for appearing as a very old and dated musical. As demonstrated with his ravishing scores for Nine and Titanic, Yeston is a master of lush and impassioned compositions. This score is right up there with his best. Perhaps Meehan and director Hughes have found the best and only way to accommodate the arcane story as well as the ambitious score.
More important is the question raised by Ovenden's interpretation of Death. A handsome devil in his own right, he works hard to impose and expose the ingratiating side of Death, possibly to the detriment of any suggestion that he has a grim or dark side. Despite his opportunities to let his tenor voice soar in a couple of all-the-stops-out arias "Alive," and "I Thought That I could Live," he rarely makes a compelling case for himself as a malevolent seducer. More often than not, he deploys the demeanor of a naìve high school boy looking for love for the first time at the senior prom. It's a choice, but not a very wise one, as it frequently makes one wonder what is it about him that actually stirs Grazia to willingly give up life as she knows it.
As Grazia, the lovely Paice keeps pace with the tenors with her own aria "Who Is This Man." She gives Death a partner to reckon with in their impassioned duet in the grotto "Alone Here With You." Interestingly, it is Cavenaugh, as the stalwart Major Benton who stirs up the vocal heat with "Roberto's Eyes" in which he recalls seeing Death in the eyes of his buddy as his plane went down.
Another aria, "Losing Roberto," allows the Duchess (Luker) to raise her glorious voice in memory of the son who was killed in the war. On the up side there is the beautifully staged "Life Is a Joy," in which everyone sings and dances as if tomorrow was never going to happen.
To be sure, Death Takes a Holiday may be an endearingly foolish fable. But if you can't have a weekend in the country with Stephen Sondheim you might as well spend it with Death.
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