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Death Takes a Holiday

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Julian Ovenden and Jill Paice.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Remember romance? No, not instantaneous sexual arousal or love at first sight, but the slow-simmering stew of feelings that gain in color and complexity the longer you're exposed to them, and that (with luck) can coalesce into something not just legitimate and lasting, but truly memorable. If you're a frequent attender of musical theatre, you can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing what used to be a wonderfully debilitating aspect of the human condition, as it barely appears on the New York stage these days. What would be unforgivable, however, would be to miss one of the rare new musicals constructed from a true romantic core, even if it's one that doesn't get everything right: Death Takes a Holiday, which the Roundabout Theatre Company has just opened at its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre.

That a show attempting something this (depressingly) daring would come from a true A-level team is one of the few things about this show that is not a surprise. Bookwriter Thomas Meehan (replacing Peter Stone, who died in 2003 while working on the project) is the superlative librettist behind major hits like Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray. Maury Yeston is the richly varied and adventurous songwriter whose compositions for the likes of Nine, Grand Hotel, and the sweeping near-opera Titanic catalog an astonishing realm of epic human emotional experiences in pointedly specific locales. And though Doug Hughes is best known for directing plays, Broadway efforts like Frozen, Doubt, and the recent revival of Born Yesterday (as well as countless more Off-Broadway) deservedly place him firmly near the top of anyone's list.

Talents like these don't always guarantee success, but they do up the odds—which proves to be a boon for material as potentially difficult as this. The show is based on Alberto Casella's play, which was produced on Broadway under the same title in 1929, filmed (starring Fredric March) in 1934, and remade as the Brad Pitt starrer Meet Joe Black in 1998. Its premise and its problem are present in its deceptively literal title: The Reaper himself (who's a bit less grim this time) has tired after several eons of collecting souls and spends a weekend on an estate in Northern Italy, during which he falls in love with a woman he's destined to have only at the expense of the one life she has to live and the family and friends who aren't inclined to let her go.

Having one member of the central duo being a construct rather than a person makes a foray into a partnership very tricky. You must believe both sides, yet still see how human devotion can transform a shade from the very spirit of eternity into someone both selfless and sacrificial. And because so much of the story revolves around Death's inexperience and coldness, one-sidedness is unavoidable for large stretches of the action.

The writers of the musical have not completely solved this problem. Their Death broods early and often, trudging about the stage like an on-the-edge Jean Valjean desperate for an opportunity to wail about his pain or crow about his discoveries in impenetrable pop-opera-tenor fashion. The actor tasked with the role here, Julian Ovenden, doesn't skirt these pitfalls, and carries his back-bending heaviness with him deep into the second act, well after his adoration for the beautiful young Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice)—whom he chose not to "salvage" from a devastating automobile accident—should have crystallized into something lighter and freer. His songs, many of them tight explications of each minute thing he learns, don't exactly thrill. Nor do the writing's attempts at comic relief, which are clustered primarily around Grazia's overanxious friend Daisy and stuffy-scared butler Fidele, because the actors cast in those roles, respectively Alexandra Socha and Don Stephenson, provide insufferably smug, one-dimensional portrayals.

Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Max von Essen, Alexandra Socha, Rebecca Luker, Michael Siberry, Patricia Noonan, Simon Jones, and Linda Balgord.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Breadth and depth otherwise flood the show, which quickly proves adept at capturing the evolution of the complex and unfamiliar desires that so many musicals today simply ignore. (Death Takes a Holiday resembles two well-known and semi-recent musicals in this regard, The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens, but easily transcends their surface-dwelling platitudes.) Grazia, in particular, is lushly drawn, with numerous numbers that chart the way she questions life, accepts its brevity, then decides to take all matters regarding it into her own hands. And Paice gives one of her best performances to date, effortlessly morphing from a dewy ingénue into a woman both clear-eyed and clear-headed enough to pay the steepest prices for what she wants, singing with no seams from an earthy belt to near-stratospheric soprano heights.

The other performers are similarly excellent. Michael Siberry and Rebecca Luker cut elegant, haunting figures as Grazia's realism-bound parents; Mara Davi is a saucy delight as Alice, an American flapper who's still reeling from the war death of her husband, Grazia's brother Roberto; Linda Balgord and Simon Jones bring an air of refined delicacy to the teasing comedy that pervades their roles as the estate's stately elders; and Max von Essen, as Grazia's fiancé, and Matt Cavenaugh, as Alice's brother and Roberto's best friend, provide two compelling, competing visions of how young men are suffering at the hands of the most ancient one in existence.

While outlining the place, time, and people, Yeston is top form: He's created a full slate of memorable tunes that range from jaunty summertime ditties to soaring declarations of passion, with stops almost everywhere in between, that have been sumptuously orchestrated by Larry Hochman and rendered by Kevin Stites's 10-piece orchestra. The rest of the creative team is a bit more variable: Catherine Zuber's costumes are fabric personifications of flowing beauty, but Derek McLane's villa set is static and only hints at what should be a colorful locale, Kenneth Posner's lights rely a bit too heavily on shadow to sell all the more buoyant moments, and Hughes's staging and Peter Pucci's choreography would benefit from more oomph, particularly in the crowd scenes.

But when Death Takes a Holiday speaks, and especially sings, from its heart, as it does with increasing regularity and urgency as the evening unfolds, it gives you almost everything you could want or need from a contemporary musical. If Meehan, Yeston, and Hughes are to continue their exploration of it—which they absolutely should—eliciting as much detail from Death's journey as they do from Grazia's should be job number one. But the three of them have already succeeded at their most important task: proving that top-rank musicals that feel deeply, honesty, and lyrically aren't entirely dead after all.

Death Takes a Holiday
Through September 4
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout

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