Monday, August 1, 2011

theatre review DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, Off Broadway, July 31

Death Takes a Holiday, the musical based on the play and film of the same name, is an engaging tuneful show having it's world premiere Off Broadway.  With a score by Tony Winner Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic, Grand Hotel) and a book by Tony Winners Peter Stone (1776, Titanic, Will Rogers Follies) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) it definitely has Broadway pedigree on it's side.  Add in one of the best ensemble casts around that consists of actors with many Broadway credits and you have a show that delivers on almost everything it sets out to accomplish.  With just a few minor quibbles, it is also a show that I enjoyed a lot.

Ovenden and Paice
The musical is based on the original Italian play written by Alberto Casella that was rewritten in English by Walter Ferris and first premiered on Broadway in 1929.  The plot of the show is fairly simple, Death decides to take a weekend off to see what life is like as a mortal.  The setting is a beautiful lakeside Italian villa in 1921, home to the young, beautiful and recently engaged Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice), her family and a few close friends who are visiting for the Summer.   When the show begins, Grazia is involved in a serious car accident where she is thrown from the car.  The accident starts the plot in motion as Death is caught somewhat off guard by Grazia, leaves her unharmed from the accident and, wondering why people fear him so, decides to take the weekend off to see what life is really like as well as to spend more time with Grazia.

Luker and Silberry (center) and the cast
Now while I enjoyed the show overall, there were just a few points that I think need to be slightly addressed.   To start off, the first few scenes of the show make it come across as very serious in tone but there there are many humorous moments that come later, which correctly set the tone as more of a light comedy in the vein of Blithe Spirit.   The humor obviously adds to the enjoyment and provides many moments for the cast to shine, but is slightly at odds with the extremely serious nature of the first 10 minutes of the show.  The ending of the show is also a little bit unfocused, not to give anything away, but let's just say that while it is a solid conclusion to the story it leaves some slight unfinished business as well as is a little too simplistic and anticlimactic compared to some of the high points that come before it.

Cavenaugh doesn't show up until an hour into the show
but delivers an emotional powerhouse of a song.
However, the score and book are in very fine form and the cast and direction are just about perfect in every way.  The production elements, while a bit on the simplistic side are used effectively and the costumes by Catherine Zuber are simply exquisite.

Also, the fact that this is a show that makes you think is a positive one.  And the fact that it makes you think about death, and if death actually exists as a person what he must be thinking and wondering about the living, is a nice added touch and something I was glad to experience and had never really thought about before.  And it isn't one of those cerebral shows where your head hurts from thinking and trying to connect things together, but one that makes you think and feel. That it is also a show that touches upon love and loss and how people grieve make it into something that I also wasn't expecting.  

Socha and von Essen have a comical duet in the second act
Jill Paice perfectly captures the free spirited Grazia, someone who isn't afraid of anything.  She also sings exquisitely.  Besides Paice, the cast includes Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry as her parents, Max Von Essen as her fiancĂ©, Matt Cavenaugh as her late brother's friend, Mara Davi and Alexandra Socha as her friends and Linda Balgord and Simon Jones as her grandmother and her doctor.  Now, this production also stars Julian Ovenden making his New York Musical Theatre debut in the lead role.  Ovenden has starred in many UK musicals, but this is his first NY one.  However, Ovenden came down with a very bad case of laryngitis a few days before the show's opening night and has now been out for 14 performances, including the one we saw.  I had heard good things about him so was somewhat disappointed that he was still out, however, I shouldn't have been concerned as his understudy Kevin Earley completely embodied "Death," sang and acted the part exquisitely and completely held his own on stage with actors who have had years of Broadway experience.  I was actually glad to have seen the understudy and can't imagine how Ovenden is more effective in the part than Earley is.

The score includes many nice elements.  Besides the beautiful love songs for Graizia and Death, there are also many beautifully sung ensemble songs as well as a gorgeously arranged trio with the three young ladies, a touching ballad about lose from Luker and an all out male belting song "Roberto's Eyes" by Cavenaugh.    These are just three of the many songs that let the ensemble shine.   Every member of the ensemble is given something to do and they all effectively bring their characters to life.   It was especially nice to see Luker and Silberry playing a couple again as they last were together on Broadway when he was the Captain and she was Maria in the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music.  Both Max von Essen and Matt Cavenaugh are perfectly cast as well, and while von Essen isn't given a solo and Cavenaugh doesn't appear until about an hour into the show, they both make their characters into more than just cameo parts.  Simon Jones and Don Stephenson also have many moments to make their characters, the Doctor and the Butler, respectively, into fleshed out ones.  Stephenson gets most of the humorous moments and knows how to perfectly play them.  Davi, Socha and Balgord are also perfect in their parts, with each of them making their characters complete individuals.

This production runs into early September, but I do believe that this show will have a healthy life ahead of it due to not only it's recognizable title but the fact that it has a relatively small cast and creators with names like Yeston, Stone and Meehan.  So I expect many productions at regional theatres in years to come.

Highlights from the show -

1 comment:

  1. Sounds amazing.
    I would love to watch it....
    Great sharing.