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Death looks at life in the romantic off-Broadway musical 'Death Takes a Holiday'
NEW YORK (AP) ' Poor Death is lonely. No wonder, since all living things die when he touches them. But in the operatic new musical, "Death Takes a Holiday," once Death takes human form, he falls in love and becomes as giddy as a schoolboy.
This delightful world premiere by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which opened Thursday night off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre, is based on the Italian drama of the same name by Alberto Casella, first adapted for American audiences in 1929 by Walter Ferris.
The current musical adaptation is both elegant and comedic, serious in theme yet laced with witty jokes. It's the work of several multiple Tony Award-winners: the bookwriters are Peter Stone ("Titanic" and "1776," among others), who died in 2003, and Thomas Meehan ("The Producers", "Hairspray" and others.) The lush, emotional music and lyrics are provided by Maury Yeston, winner of Tony Awards for "Titanic" and "Nine."
Doug Hughes (Tony Award for "Doubt") directs this timeless examination of the power of love. Hughes' romantic, imaginative staging begins with a neatly simulated auto accident and ends soon after a dramatic pavane performed by the ensemble.
In between, the character of Death (played with aplomb by tenor Julian Ovenden) takes an unprecedented two-day break, exhausted by his job during World War I. He disguises himself as a Russian prince to learn more about the human life force, inspired by the ebullience of a vibrant young girl, Grazia Lamberti (sweetly voiced by soprano Jill Paice.)
Typical of the humor in the play, Death drily refers to himself as "my apparently very terrifying self," and wistfully sings "Why do all men fear me, cling to life so dearly?" He sternly informs Grazia's alarmed father, Duke Lamberti, (Michael Siberry) that he'll be weekending in disguise at the family's luxurious lakeside villa because, "It's my first vacation. Would you expect me to check into a cheap hotel?"
Paice is simply bewitching, as Grazia innocently sings about how wonderful life is even as she feels a powerful attraction to the mysterious stranger. Ovenden masterfully endows the tricky role of Death with poise and charm, first coldly menacing as the Grim Reaper, then switching gears to a much warmer persona when Death takes over the "not-unhandsome" body of Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki.
Newly human, Sirki joyously sings about being "Alive" while jumping around in his room, then comically learns to "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree" with the help of Grazia's widowed sister-in-law, Alice (Mara Davi). Chief among the high points in the show is Ovenden's rousing, soulful solo in the second act, "I Thought That I Could Live."
Paice and Ovenden share some soaring duets together, including "Alone Here With You" and the poignant "More and More." A stately turn by Rebecca Luker as Grazia's mother is further elevated by Luker's beautiful rendition of "Losing Roberto," a haunting song about the death of her son in wartime.
Foreshadowings are also provided by the musings of two older characters, the family doctor (the ever-suave Simon Jones) and Grazia's forgetful but wise grandmother (an elegant Linda Balgord.)
A busybody servant (Don Stephenson) and the presence of Daisy, an eager, awkward young girl brimming with unrequited love (an appealing performance by Alexandra Socha) help lighten the mood, as does Max Von Essen's amusing portrayal of Grazia's increasingly disgruntled fiance, Corrado.
Catherine Zuber's stylish period costumes are outstanding, especially the delicately fluttering dresses worn by Paice. Derek McLane has created a spare yet majestic impression of a villa, using towering columned arches to cleverly frame all indoor and outdoor locations.
Grazia eventually tells Sirki she doesn't believe that death is always tragic. Which will have the stronger pull, Grazia and Sirki's love, or Sirki's destiny to resume his duties as Death?