Death Takes A Holiday
Charing Cross Theatre
23rd January 2017
Maury Yeston’s magnificent score for this show – one of the finest in London right now – is a glory not to be missed in this European premiere of one of his more extraordinary creations. Set in 1922, it encompasses sounds from Broadway then and now, Tin Pan Alley, Italian opera (from baroque to late verismo), modernist concert music and even the lush film scores of Max Steiner et al. It is an amazing concoction. The cast of 14 do it proud, and the band of 10 recreate the original Larry Hochman Off-Broadway orchestrations in full, under the masterly direction of MD Dean Austin.
In an atmospherically cool neo-classical villa on the shores of Lake Garda – an exquisitely operatic set by Morgan Large – a rich, aristocratic family gathers to celebrate the betrothal of their daughter to the son of close neighbours (yes… immediately we think of ‘I promessi sposi’). Then, into their midst, much in the manner of Pirandello’s theatre, comes the all-but allegorical figure of Death, tactfully disguising himself as the Russian prince, Sirki, and ‘taking a holiday’ from his usual duties of dispensing mortality and reaping souls. Then, exactly as we expect him to, he quickly becomes enamoured of the fiancee, and a clash of wills ensues, which can have but one outcome.
The story originates with little-known poet and dramatist, Alberto Casella, and is far and away his most successful work, being translated into English for production in the US and then taken up by Hollywood in 1934 and filmed with Frederic March. Casella went on to write more notable screenplays in Italy, but none of his other works enjoyed the after-life of this hit. It was filmed again by TV in the 1970s (with mixed results), and then turned into the hugely popular ‘Meet Joe Black’ with Brad Pitt in the late 1990s. In the right hands, there seems to be something indestructible about the story.
Yeston began the musical hard on the heels of the opening of ‘Titanic’, with the same librettist, Peter Stone. When Stone died a few years into the project, he was replaced by Thomas Meehan. It played a limited engagement Off-Broadway, and then, more recently, when the songwriter played through the score for Thom Southerland, the director became so enthused by the work that he needed no further persuasion to bring it to the stage in the UK. And here it is.
It is hard to imagine it getting better treatment. Southerland with Tarento Productions and the Charing Cross Theatre’s own production team, having scored a massive success with their revival of ‘Titanic’, must surely be the best available people to do this job. Discreetly choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane, beautifully dressed by Jonathan Lipman and gorgeously lit by Matt Daw, with sound by Andrew Johnson, this is a stunningly tasteful and well-judged presentation.
It is similarly finely cast. As Death, Chris Peluso (whom you may remember recently as Gaylord Ravenal in the New London Theatre transfer of ‘Show Boat’) plays him like a doomed matinee idol, as in one of Ivor Novello’s more tormented roles, but with a fine lyric tenor voice that rises to every demand Yeston’s score makes of it – and it makes plenty. His match, Zoe Doano’s Grazia Lamberti, is light and clear, but packs a punch in the top register on the occasions she gets to use it. There is a stately romantic formality between them, recalling perhaps Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Ashley Stillburn does what he can with the fairly thankless part of the jilted fiance, Corrado Danielli, but the household is run with energy and commitment by Duke Vittorio (Mark Inscoe) and his beautifully sung Duchesa Stephanie (Kathryn Akin); there is also feisty and moderne Alice Lamberti (Helen Turner) and a visiting American, Daisy Fenton (soulful Scarlett Courtney); the older generation comprises Contessa Evangelina di San Danielli (clear as a bell Gay Soper in the ‘Hermione Gingold’ role) and her doctor-cum-lover Baron Dario Albione (suave and gently self-effacing Anthony Cable); while the staff comprises the chauffeur Lorenzo (brassy Matthew McDonald), the butler Fidele (bright as a button, James Gant: watch out for him taking over Death’s role from 13th February – Ken Christansen will get his), the housemaids Sophia (vampish Sophie-May Feek) and Cora (sassy Trudi Camilleri). Another guest flying in is the air ace old friend of the deceased son of the Lamberti’s, Major Eric Fenton (dashing Samuel Thomas).
It is a tightly drawn group of characters, and when at one point they all sit down and announce they are going to pass the time by telling each other stories, we can quite easily imagine ourselves drifting into a ‘Decamerone’ of the post-Great War era. Similarly, when Death, in the guise of being a Russian prince, goes about transforming the lives of all under the Lamberti roof, we even feel the proximity of Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’. Then, as his infernal character is revealed, we move gently into ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ and ‘The Exterminating Angel’. Cosmopolitanism is the name of the game here; it is an intellectual feast for the cultivated and knowledgeable. The second act even begins with a five-part fugue (of sorts).
Whether it works in its own right as a story that will engage the heart is perhaps another matter. The songs the characters have to sing are all utterly delightful and deliciously written. But the story they tell, even though it pulls on most of the same stops as ‘The Flying Dutchman’, doesn’t engage the heart in the same way. It remains principally a cerebral experience – a wonderful one – but geared towards thoughtful reflection rather than passionate engagement. This may not be a bad thing: the staging looks like it’s going to be a run through the territory of Racine, and it ends up being more like something by Marivaux – a play about conversations: urbane, civilised, clever. Nothing really ‘happens’. There is much of ‘Smiles of an Alpine Night’ about this show, and Sondheim is one of the artists to whom Yeston pays court here. Perhaps if the high comedy were allowed freer rein, particularly in the first half of the first act, we could warm to these people more than we currently do. But that may not be the intention. Maybe we are supposed to look at them with the objective detachment of Bunuel. Or, yes, Pirandello.
Go, and judge for yourself.
Until 4th March 2017