Is there a more unlikely vehicle for production as a musical than Death Takes A Holiday? It’s a fair question – what is there to suggest inherent musicality about a fatal car crash, Death deciding to walk amongst the living, and a curious romance between Death and a woman who should be dead but isn’t? Maury Yeston provides a rich, gloriously melodic and sumptuously scored answer – and his music is the biggest draw card here although Chris Peluso’s enigmatic and persuasive Death comes a close second. This is a serious chamber musical, for the most part beautifully sung, and well worth seeing.
A small table is set for breakfast. A vase with a single rose adorns it. He enters, dressed in black silk/satin pyjamas, swathed in a luxurious patterned dressing gown, also silk/satin. His slippers are brown and refined. He is the personification of the matinee idol/handsome Prince look – the type to sweep admirers off their feet.
But he is not the typical male beauty. No. Something is wrong with him. The paleness of his skin matches the paucity of his life experience. He seems a child in some ways, but a child with power.
His glee at the prospect of consuming his first breakfast, eggs, is palpable. His infectious joy as he scans the papers and notes tragedies that resulted in no fatalities is irresistible. The shameless attempt at seduction by the maid who brings fresh towels is a reminder of flirtatious youth, and his use of the newspaper to cover his sudden, “what just happened” hardening to the possibilities pleasures of the flesh offer in life reminds everyone of their own first pleasant arousal.
The sense of the exploration of the many glories of life radiates through every phrase, every note, of the joyful ballad Alive! It’s a marvellous musical moment – quite unforgettable. Chris Peluso completely pulls off the bizarre challenge of depicting Death vacationing and coming to grips with life and what it means.
This is the European premiere of Death Takes A Holiday, the 2011 musical by Maury Yeston (Music and Lyrics), Thomas Meehan (Book) and Peter Stone (Book), now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre. Directed by Thom Southerland, with excellent musical direction from Dean Austin, this is a musical treat: there is rich, expressive singing from the ensemble, evocative lighting from Matt Daw (spotlights and fog make an irresistible combination) which brings out the best in Morgan Large’s efficient grand Italian estate set design, and some excellent performances, some complex and some comic.
While Yeston’s score is constantly surprising and engaging, with wonderfully diverse numbers such as In The Middle Of Your Life, Alive!, Life’s A Joy, Roberto’s Eyes, Alone Here With You, What Do You Do, I Thought That I Could Live and December Time. Some of the melodies ache with pleasure, some are stirring, some poignant and simple – but there is a shimmering quality which is all pervading, totally engaging. Occasionally there are nods to Titanic, and more than once you could be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to a Menken Disney score, but neither of those are bad things.
Meehan and Stone’s book is smart and efficient in the first Act, but not quite so good in Act Two. This is one of those musicals where it would probably be better if there was no interval, and if a series of numbers at the start of Act Two (from Something’s Happened to More and More) were fused into one composite number that brought the disparate themes together more succinctly. Yeston’s lyrics never jar and often are thoughtfully poetic.
The story is straightforward enough. A newly engaged couple are returning home after a celebration in Venice. Spirits are high because of the engagement and the car is travelling too fast and Grazia, the newly engaged young woman, is recklessly standing up in the car, letting the breeze caress her spirit. Her fiancé crashes into a tree and Grazia is thrown out of the car. Death is on hand to whisk her away to the afterlife, but he senses something remarkable about her and opts to let her live on.
Struck by Grazia’s charms, Death decides to take a vacation – to discover what it is like to live and to experience the pleasures of life. Masquerading as a Russian Prince from Minsk, he imposes upon Grazia’s father for hospitality and promises, Cinderella like, to leave the next day at Midnight. Inevitably, Grazia breaks off her engagement and falls in love with Death. Death falls in love too, which makes his dilemma profound: if he takes her, she dies and never experiences life; if he doesn’t take her, he will have lost her. What will Death’s decision be?
Southerland’s direction is efficient and sensible throughout, and while there are several inspirational touches – the staging of the car journey and the collision, for instance, with clever use of chairs – and quite beautiful stage pictures often involving the full cast, the pace of scenes not involving Peluso’s Death is never as brisk as it might be and a number of the performances are far too one-dimensional.
Happily, there are enough excellent performances to keep interest high and to smooth over the more risible sections of the narrative, at least as staged here and delivered by some of the cast. James Gant is in terrific form as the servant Fidele, and his comic performance is an essential part of the success here. He sings superbly, with glistening diction and unerring tunefulness. He takes over the role of Death on February 13 (when Peluso takes up duties in the U.K. tour of Funny Girl) which provides an excellent reason for a return visit to this production.
Gay Soper and Anthony Cable are quite delightful as an old couple who are not a couple even though they once were a couple. Soper is especially good as the unfocused Countess, the twinkle in her eye, when clarity is in her mind, joyous and real. Cable’s Baron is a little stiff at points, but he is easy to forgive because when the chips are down, he delivers the goods. He leads the company nimbly in Life’s A Joy and the duet with Soper, December Time, is genuinely touching, charmingly affecting.
There is excellent support from Samuel Thomas and Scarlett Courtney (who play brother and sister, Eric and Daisy Fenton) and Matthew McDonald, whose Lorenzo is lusty in thought and voice. Thomas sings spectacularly well and convinces as a World War One fighter pilot. Courtney is a naive, desperate joy as the winsome lass who wants the handsome Corrado, Grazia’s fiancé, but is always second fiddle.
Ashley Stillburn slightly oversings as Corrado, and his characterisation seems too banal and gruff to have ever captured Grazia’s heart. Still, he has a rich voice and a good stage presence. Kathryn Akin and Mark Inscoe are too wooden and lacking in stylish grace to effectively pull off their roles as Grazia’s noble parents, but both can sing, although, again, there is a tendency to push the tunes rather than sing them.
It’s the same with Helen Turner’s Alice – Southerland needs to ensure his cast play the moments and find the simplest way to convey the emotional heart. Bluster and loudness is no substitute for involved, empathetic communication. Nearly everyone seemed able to meet the demands of the text, but few were at the appropriate level of engagement on Press Night. Doubtless, these performances will bloom and grow.
Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography is quite gentle and tinged with amorous adventure and excitement. Swirling couples help agitate the air of romance, despite the unlikely nature of the central pair of lovers. Jonathan Lipman’s costumes help make the texture of the visuals look as ravashing as Austin’s ten piece band makes Larry Hochman’s deft, assured orchestrations sound.
As Grazia, Zoë Doano does not have the astonishing stage presence, the irresistible vitality, that is essential to making the character work. Grazia is meant to stop Death in his tracks, to turn his head in a way that Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Juliet and Marie Antoinette could not. This is not about physical beauty alone, it is a question of that ineffable star quality, the much vaunted X factor.
Although she is attractive and engaging, in form and voice, Doano never really convinces as the irresistible Grazia. Partly, this is because her singing of the role does not come across as effortless, in that Julie Andrews way, as it should. Her soprano sound is uneven. Some notes are too shrill, some too covered, some too forced – there is no sense of languid ease about her singing. Partly, it is because Doano is not relaxed enough in the role and her acting is jagged where it needs to be smooth. Partly, it is because there is not enough electricity between her and Peluso, so the certainty of their love is never crystal clear.
For his part, Peluso gives the role his all. His voice is in magnificent form, an absolute joy to hear. He makes the solo numbers work marvellously, although he should adopt the less is more approach too. There is way too much shouting towards the end of Act Two, when broken, hesitant uncertainty might reap greater rewards. And Peluso must share the blame for the cool chemistry between he and Doano – Death needs to be fiery too.
But Peluso absolutely nails the other quality of the character: the coldness of the grim reaper; the fascination with life; the child-like glee of the adventure his holiday proves to be; the swirling emotions that mean his heart is beating, not icy and still; the pain of indecision; the thawing coldness as an understanding of parental love enters his consciousness. It’s a complex and compelling performance from Peluso, laced with virtuoso singing and wrapped up in a handsome, beguiling physicality.
There is a great deal to admire and enjoy in Southerland’s beautiful looking production and it is delightful to see a chamber musical staged with such care for look, feel and overall sound. The cast sing together brightly and brilliantly. The melancholy undercurrent of the narrative is never shied away from and each comic moment is properly mined. Peluso gives a terrific star performance. In the end, though, Yeston’s score is the lush, beating heart of the evening.