Ah, the fantastic fantasy of theatre! In a semi-operatic styled production, this Maury Yeston musical version of Alberto Casella’s Italian play seen on Broadway in 1929, and then on the big screen in 1934 with Frederic March, remade once again in 1998 as a vehicle for Brad Pitt in, “Meet Joe Black,” is an engaging throwback delving into the story of what happens when Death decides to put aside his scythe and hob-nob with the human race for a weekend. The book is by Peter Stone (deceased 2003) and Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) and is part of this season’s Roundabout productions.
The richness of the music and lyrics of this campy but dark tale are extremely pleasurable especially when presented by this assemblage of extraordinarily talented performers. The story begins when the beautiful Grazia (played by the ethereal exquisite soprano Jill Paice) and her family are in a motor vehicle (cleverly staged and directed by Doug Hughes) returning to their Villa after celebrating her engagement to Corrado (Max Von Essen), singing “In The Middle of Your life/anything can happen,” when a shadow appears on the road and there is an accident. Although Grazia is thrown from the vehicle, she escapes unscathed with nary a scar.
It is 1921 and back at the Villa, the family members convene and include a stellar cast, Grazia’s father, the Duke Lamberti (a flustery Michael Sherry), her mother the Dutchess (the always engagingly lovely Rebecca Luker, whose poignant solo “Losing Roberto,” about a mother’s grief, is notable), Grazia’s sister-in-law from Indiana, Alice (a feisty Mara Davi shines literally on Shimmy Like They Do in Paree), young overly cutesy friend Daisy (Alexandra Socha) who adores Corrado, Grazia’s grandmama Contessa Evangelina, (Linda Balgord) and her first lover and now doctor in residence Dr. Dario Albione (Simon Jones), who lovingly duet on “December Time.” Major Eric Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh) comes swooping in having flown his own plane to the Villa and this is one of the funnier moments as his flier’s garb strips away revealing a tuxedo beneath. He is Grazia’s dead brother Roberto’s friend who served in the War with him. Cavenaugh gives a stunning vocal performance “Roberto’s Eyes.”
Death decides it’s time to take a weekend vacation and see what all the fuss is about and why people want to live. Now played by Kevin Early, who took over the role from an ailing Julian Ovenden, he swears the Duke to secrecy as he appears at the Villa as Russian prince, Nikolai Sirki. But he is overheard by the majordomo Fidele (Don Stephenson) who adds glib comic relief throughout. Early has a wonderful soaring baritone-tenor voice but isn’t sinister enough as the character. However, he and Grazia fall in love as he learns the intricacies of life; – fried eggs, towels brought to his room by the seductive maid Sophie (Patricia Noonan) who bemoans that she wanted to sleep with him even after she discovers Prince Siki is Death. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Cora, a cook (Joy Hermalyn) and Lorenzo (Jay Jaski), a chauffeur/gardener.
Everyone gets a chance to shine vocally in the production and show off superior individual talents. It’s a charming, romantic story of love told the old fashioned way and enhanced with the magical scenic design of Derek McLane; subtle lighting by Kenneth Posner with lavish period costumes by Catherine Zuber, and choreographed by Peter Pucci.
Will love ultimately be the strength that eternalizes Death and Grazia together or the catalyst to him letting her go?
“Death Takes a Holiday” runs thru September 4th at the Laura Pels Theater on West 46th Street, NYC in two acts.