Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Review Death Takes A Holiday

Death Takes A Holiday
Book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone
Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston

The Lost Weekend

With a sweeping melodic score, Death Takes A Holiday is a Tarot card fantasy where the Grim Reaper out of a scientific curiosity, he claims, abandons his scythe for three days to experience life.

He settles on the aristocratic Lamberti family who, along with many others, have known their share of tragedy during the Great War with the loss of their pilot son Roberto, leaving them with a sole child, their daughter Grazia. And of course with Death on vacation, there are no obituaries in the newspapers because there are - no deaths ...  

Death Takes A Holiday the musical, first produced in 2011 but in the pipeline for far longer, is something of a curiosity in itself. For it feels very much like an experiment to find a musical for a bellicose twenty first century which ended up with some beautiful silken songs, maturing from May to December of life, hanging from its skeleton.

Set in 1922 on Lake Garda, it veers in tone between melodrama, pantomine in the comedia dell arte sense, light operetta alongside a shimmy of the 1920s' jazz age, even with a touch of Mozart and a definite nod towards the lush romanticism of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Bookwise, there's a hint of The Great Gatsby, a smidgeon of The Rules Of The Game. Maybe even a flash of The Magic Mountain and Women In Love.

Death here embodied by dark and square-jawed  Chris Peluso is a war-weary foot soldier, with a trace of a more selfish instinct, who feels he deserves leave from his trade to explore why human beings cling to life so tenaciously

Zoë Doano is a reckless, Scott Fitzgerald type of heroine out for thrills as Grazia.The solo songs, despite the strong voices, mostly nevertheless feel interchangeable. Even if they are an object lesson in how to push forward the story with shades of Beauty and The Beast and the ticking clock of Cinderella.

It's the duets and other songs for the whole company which begin to inject the energy. Starting with the stately Death Is In The House sung by Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Mark Inscoe) and his zany servant Fidele (James Gaunt) with the stirring and finally ironic Life's A Joy, a turning point in mood.

While Alice (a vivacious Helen Turner), formerly engaged to the dead pilot, teaches Death aka  Russian prince Sirki the latest jazz-age dance from Paris streets filled with former American GIs, the aviator's former colleague Eric sings of Roberto's last flight (a superb Samuel Thomas), the very moment of death.

A personal favourite was the change of pace in the operatic opening of the second act Something's Happened. The trio of Grazi, Daisy (Scarlett Courtney) and Alice in the intricate Finally To Know continue the more complex momentus.

The ambiguous but soaring vocals of More and More, a duet for Sirki and Grazia give equal depth and a lift to the story.

Meanwhile the waltzing musical box December Time is a heartfelt multi-faceted reflection from Grazia's ailing grandmother (Gay Soper) and her loyal admirer Dario (Anthony Cable) proving ripeness is all: "All good poetry takes time/You don't hear the final rhyme/Until you reach December time".

With a haunting ivy clad gray stone villa set designed by Morgan Large, delicately and precisely lit by Matt Daw, Tom Southerland directs a fluid production, costumed with panache by Jonathan Lipman.

Yet, as the set opens and closes to reveal the courtyard and then the inside of the villa, it does feel cramped on the Charing Cross Theatre stage and the supernatural, cinematic feel to this tale seems to demand a larger space.   

Death Takes A Holiday was originally a 1924 theatre-of-the-grotesque play by Alberto Casella, two years after Benito Mussolini's ascent to power, the murderous demolition of the opposition socialist party, the dwindling power of the Italian monarchy and its aristocracy. After a slow-burning success on Broadway in an American adaptation, it was first a successful 1934 vehicle for actor Frederick March and much later a three-hour (!!!) movie, Meet Joe Black, with Brad Pitt.

While he was long dead by 1924, this secular parable reminded us of British satirist Saki but played mostly for romance and broad comedy with only a ghost of his mordant, macabre wit.  Part of the problem structurally, it seemed to us, is that the musical's USP (unique selling point) is revealed early on, draining the tension out of what follows.

Sure, Death really is Death, the Grim Reaper. But he could equally be one of the bitter, forgotten men of the post World War One generation, a hypnotising con man (logically taken. the ending actually confirms Death himself is a bluffer) or even a spy with matinee idol looks. He takes on the dead body of a suicide, a white Russian playboy gambler,  Prince Sirki of Belarus. But in 1922 - a Prince of Belarus ...?!! With a more explicit double edge, Death and the Prince might take on a more layered resonance. 

Still  by 2011, we'd had our fill of conflicts again and, with women now front line troops alongside the men, there could be an added poignancy chiming with the rather sudden ending of this rumination on the destruction of the First World War and the breaking of bonds. While it's an uneven musical, there's still a potency in the red rose that does not wilt with the suspension of death, a transient moment of hope and it's an amber/green light from TLT. 

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