At first glance, everything about the new musical “Death Takes a Holiday” appears top-drawer, lovely, and impressive. What more could you want than to hear ravishingly beautiful arias and duets sung by a mysterious and good-looking hero and a pretty and beguiling heroine who unexpectedly find eternal love together in an Italian villa during the 1920s? A second glance, however (that means thinking about it), is another matter. It reveals that composer Maury Yeston, book authors the late Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan, and director Doug Hughes may have been misguided in thinking that resurrecting Alberto Casella’s metaphysical/fantastical/supernatural 1924 Italian play (first produced on Broadway in 1929) was a particularly good idea.
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 decor 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?
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 (formerly played by Julian Overton but now being permanently played by understudy Kevin Earley, as Overton withdrew due to throat problems), 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 eavesdropping 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 has 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 fiance 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).
Yeston is a master of lush and impassioned compositions. This score is right up there with his best.
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 naive high school boy looking for love for the first time at the senior prom.
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.
“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. H**
“Death Takes a Holiday,” through Sunday, September 4, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $76 to $86. 212-719-1300.