August 20, 2011

"Death Takes a Holiday" Isn't Much Fun

Death was indeed on a holiday the first time I tried to see the new chamber musical Death Takes a Holiday that has been playing this summer at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.  Well, actually, the show’s star Julian Ovenden who played the title character was out sick.  The box office offered the option of staying and seeing the understudy or coming back another night.  It was a beautiful summer evening and so I came home and sat out on my terrace with a glass of crisp rosé.

But I might just as well have stayed and seen the show because a week or so later came the news that Ovenden, who had also missed opening night, was withdrawing from the show due to severe laryngitis. The understudy Kevin Earley has permanently taken over for the rest of the run, which ends Sept. 4. 

I am sorry to have missed Ovenden. The British actor has a terrific voice (click here to hear his rendition of Company’s “Being Alive”) and is as cute as a Havanese puppy.  But I’m not sure how much a difference his presence would have made. For this is one of those shows that has to be filed under the category of “noble failure.”

Alberto Casella’s moody 1924 play La Morte in Vacanze, which inspired the show, tells the story of how the Grim Reaper, weary after the carnage of World War I, decides to take a few days off, falls for a young Italian noblewoman, masquerades as a Russian prince to spend a weekend at her parents’ villa and discovers what it means to be human. This unsettling mix of metaphysics and romance has proven difficult to get right.

An English translation of the play ran on Broadway for 180 performances in 1929, was revived for a month two years later but doesn’t seem to have been done since. The 1934 movie version with Fredric March in the title role drew critical praise at the time but seldom turns up on AMC or Turner Classic Movies.  And “Meet Joe Black,” the 1998 remake with Brad Pitt, was a hot mess.  Alas, the musical turns out to be almost as tone deaf.

Death Takes a Holiday has been 14 years in the making (click here to read a story about its gestation) and composer Maury Yeston and book writer Thomas Meehan, who took over when Yeston’s friend and Titanic partner Peter Stone died in 2003, have set it on an uneasy fault line between an old-fashioned operetta and a contemporary musical comedy. Unfortunately, director Doug Hughes, a newcomer to musicals, was unable to find the right balance.

Much of Yeston’s music is lush but it feels slightly generic and it’s completely undermined by his lyrics.  It’s no fun when you can hear the rhyme coming before the first word in the second half of the couplet is sung. And some of the lyrics just don’t make sense. He almost lost me right off the bat with the first song in which the young woman Grazia, who has been established as just 21 and on the way home from her engagement party, sings about being in the middle of her life.  Huh?

Meanwhile Meehan, who won Tonys for co-writing The Producers and Hairspray, lards the book with rim-shot jokes. Example: on his first morning as a mortal, Death gets a boner.  It doesn’t help that Earley is a Will Ferrell-look-alike. Earley has a strong voice but he never quite shakes the goofy quality and his big number when Death finally realizes what it means to be human drew only polite applause the night I saw the show.

A few of the other characters—Don Stephenson’s timorous butler and Alexandra Socha’s lovesick houseguest—are off-puttingly cartoonish.  But, thankfully, some of the other performances are more successful. Jill Paice is charming as Grazia, has a crystalline soprano and looks absolutely lovely in Catherine Zuber’s beautiful period gowns.

Rebecca Luker, who might have played Grazia just a few years ago, is also thoroughly winning as her mother and earned grateful “Bravas” from the audience for her moving aria about the death of her son in the war (click here to read a Q&A with Luker)

And Matt Cavenaugh who seemed wan as Tony in the recent revival of West Side Story, is debonair here, delivers a show-stopping number in glorious voice (he got “Bravos!”) and gave every sign that he might have made a more seductive Death and the evening more of a holiday.

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