Death Takes a Holiday
Book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Doug Hughes
The basic story of Death Takes a Holiday made for a morbid but somewhat forgettable 1934 movie starring Fredric March and then a 1998 retread called Meet Joe Black, in which everybody on screen acted stunned by the mere presence of Brad Pitt's supernatural blond beauty for nearly three hours. The rather icky romanticism of the plot, where Death takes mortal form and falls in love at a post-WWI Italian villa, has been brought out but refined in sometimes exquisite detail in this musical version for the Roundabout Theatre Company (through September 4), which features some ambitious music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, who wrote the score for Nine.
The opening number, "In the Middle of Your Life," is set in a car running dangerously fast, and Yeston provides some rippling arpeggios that call to mind the scores that Richard Robbins used to write for early-90s Merchant Ivory movies. Grazia (Jill Paice), the heroine, stands up in the car and sings about how thrilling she finds the night air on her skin, and Paice performs this song with such bursts of lyrical feeling that she catches you up in an exultant mood right away. Her high emotion is matched by the actor called upon to play Death, Julian Ovenden, a British performer with a world-class tenor voice. In perhaps the best song in the show, "Alive," Ovenden's Death sings about the sensual excitements he feels as a real man in a real body; he bolts around the stage and finishes the number atop an ornate spiral staircase by throwing out as ringing and bracing a high note as you're ever likely to hear.
Death Takes a Holidayis so fragile and pretty for most of its first act, so special and sure of itself in music, acting, set design and (especially) sensitive lighting design by Kenneth Posner, that it comes as a distinct letdown when the songs and the moods begin to repeat themselves instead of developing and moving forward. At a certain point, Paice sings a song, "Who is This Man," that sounds too much like some of her earlier "I feel too much!" numbers, and this repetition begins to cancel out and negate all that has come before. In the second act, the songs get worse and worse; there are some particularly dire lyrics in Rebecca Luker's big number about losing her son in the war, and the plangent quality of Luker's lush singing voice can't transcend the bargain-basement words she has to sing. It's as if Yeston had his own burst of inspiration for most of the songs in the first act and then succumbed to banality and fill-in-the-blank writing in the second act. Consequently, this is a very difficult show to judge. It contains absolutely lovely images, music and effects in its first hour, and the singing and acting couldn't be better. But then the material and the music starts to blur and collapse. By all means see this first hour, if you can, but be advised to take a powder at intermission.
Please note that understudy Kevin Earley has permanently taken over the role of Death from Julian Ovenden.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)