Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Death Takes a Holiday
Also see Eddie's review of Tribes
Over winding roads at too great a speed on a late, foggy night, a car containing a family returning from an engagement party swerves, with the to-be-bride Grazia being thrown out to, under normal circumstance, certain death. But Death, already exhausted from recent years of too much business during the Great War, freezes in his steps at her beauty, deciding it is time to take a couple days off after many millennia without a vacation. He shows up at Duke Vittorio Lamberti's luxurious villa on the edge of an Italian mountain lake (why go second-class his one time off work?), announcing to Grazia's father his firm intent to spend the weekend with the family, with no harm to come to them if his identity is kept secret until his departure on midnight Sunday. Announced as Russian Prince Nikoli Sirki (the real Sirki happened to end his own life that very night after too many gambling debts), Death arrives as a handsome, sophisticated man who fascinates and charms everyone, especially the betrothed Grazia.
What ensues is a weekend of increasing unease with a family who cannot quite understand this mysterious visitor, and of a blossoming but impossible love affair between Grazia and a man who has never touched a rose without it dying or kissed a woman with his own heart madly beating.
Jessica Whittemore is the beautiful Grazia who suddenly exhibits new bursts of independence and boldness after her near brush with death, especially once she catches the eye of the striking Sirki, whom she vaguely recognizes. Time and again she sings of her growing attraction ("Who Is This Man?") and then outright love of him ("Alone Here with You," Finally to Know," and "More and More [reprise]") with a crisply clear voice full of smiles and whimsy, yet grounded in solid confidence, effortlessly delivering the light arias Mr. Yeston has created for her. There is something distinctly mysterious about Grazia after that fateful toss from the car, and Ms. Whittemore captures an evolving personality and demeanor that both sets her ever more apart from the rest of her adoring family and shows a determined resolve to shape her own life in ways no one else can imagine possible.
When Death wakes up after his first night ever of sleep, his temporary shell, Prince Sirki, as played by Stephen Boisvert, literally bounces with delight and wonder as he discovers fried eggs, a fluffy towel, and morning's dew outside the window. With eyes as big as half dollars and a smile like a quarter moon, the Prince sings "Alive" ("Off on holiday / Why didn't I think of this before?"). Mr. Boisvert's best moments continue to be a series of firsts: savoring steaming coffee, feeling cool raindrops on his forehead, and even noticing a rise in his pants after staring at a saucy maid's bent-over bottom. When coupled lovingly in song with Ms. Whittemore in "What Kind of Girl," "Alone Here with You," and "More and More," Boisvert holds his own with her near-operatic power and clarity, his voice growing stronger and surer of the ranges required as the show progresses.
Several singular, stunning moments occur in song by characters who step forward for spotlight attention. Will Perez, as Major Eric Fenton, swoops onto the scene in his private plane for a brief visit and a haunting recalling of the air-battle death in the recent war of his friend, Grazia's brother Roberto. Singing "Roberto's Eyes" in a soft, sweet voice clearly steeped with sad, painful memory, Mr. Perez remembers that the final look in those eyes are the same eyes he now sees in the visiting Prince, ending with a forever-sustained note that reaches out to touch the soul of all listening. Equally strong in the next act is Gwendolyne Wagner as Duchess Stephanie who, too, is remembering Roberto, her son, as she stands in his still untouched bedroom and recounts to the Prince himself in a rich voice full of sad joy what he was like in life and what it has been like "Losing Roberto."
While not all the lead and supporting cast can always meet the demands of this operatic-like score when called upon to sing alone or in duets, together as a full ensemble they delight in close harmonies and grand melodies the likes of "In the Middle of Your Life" and "Something's Happened." Their success is greatly enhanced by the many changes of stunning costumes designed by Marilyn Watts. In fact, the evening becomes a fashion show of beaded gowns, fringed flapper dresses, and smartly suited daywear for the aristocratic women of the family, only to be matched by the dapper-tuxed men and the starched-to-perfection servant staff. Sharon Ridge complements with wigs that are natural and of the period while the constantly shifting scenic projections of Doug Baird set the stage, both indoors and out. Director Karen Altree Piemme makes good use of the unique Tabard space to seamlessly move the large cast in, out, and about between numerous scenes, and Lauren Bevilacqua directs an extremely fine group of six musicians to deliver this beautiful score majestically.
Sometimes, as we see in this Yeston/Stone/Meehan musical, it takes a visit by Death to awaken the living to the happiness, real and potential, surrounding them every day. The power of love to transcend even death itself is both the fairytale and the real message of this chamber-like musical. Tabard Theatre stages Death Takes a Holiday with a celebratory air that also has a touch of life's inevitable sadness, and the production is one that is well worth an outing to enjoy.
The Tabard Theatre Company continues its run of Death Takes a Holiday through November 28, 2015, at the Theatre on San Pedro Square, Downtown San Jose. Tickets are available online at www.tabardtheatre.org or by calling 408-679-2330.