Sunday, July 3, 2011

Off Broadway: Death Takes a Holiday

Death Takes a Holiday, an ambitious Off Broadway musical based on the play by Alberto Casella and rewritten for the American stage by Walter Ferris, is not scheduled to open officially until July 21, but can be seen in previews before then at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.  We attended a matinee preview performance on Saturday and left with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the entire cast performed splendidly and their singing voices were spectacular across the board.  But, unfortunately, the play itself is nothing to write home about: the book (by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone) is choppy and dull while the music and lyrics (by Maury Yeston) are derivative, pedestrian and something of a failed attempt at cobbling together operatic renditions with tunes more typical of Broadway musicals.  In sum, it was pretty much a waste of some exceptional acting and vocal talent on a theatrical vehicle not really worthy of their efforts.

The plot is relatively simple – or even simplistic.  Death (Julian Ovenden), determined to discover what it is about life that makes people want to cling to it and fear him, suspends his activities as “The Grim Reaper” for a while, disguises himself as a handsome Russian prince, and descends on an Italian villa to experience what life is all about for himself for the first time.  Rather predictably, he falls in love with Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice) and she with him, which is a bit complicated by the fact that she had just become engaged to Corrado Montelli (Max Von Essen).  The remaining characters in the relatively large cast could have constituted the entire entourage of a French farce: Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Michael Siberry) and Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Rebecca Luker), Grazia’s parents; Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (Linda Balgord), Stephanie’s mother; Dr. Dario Albione (Simon Jones), Evangelina’s doctor and an old friend of the Lamberti family; Alice Lamberti (Mara Davi), Grazia’s American sister-in-law who had been married to her late brother, Roberto; Daisy Fenton (Alexandra Socha), Grazia’s best friend who is in love with Corrado; Major Eric Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh), Daisy’s older brother and an American Army aviator who flew with Roberto; and several members of the household staff including Lorenzo (Jay Jaski), a chauffer/gardener; Sophia (Patricia Noonan), a housemaid; Cora (Joy Hermalyn), a cook; and Fidele (Don Stephenson), a majordomo.

As we noted at the outset, the play itself, including the book, music and lyrics, at least in previews, left much to be desired. (One may only hope that those shortcomings may be resolved by opening night although it’s difficult to see how they could be since they go to the very core of the production).  But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t end up having a good time anyway.  We did.  The costumes were lush and lovely to behold and at least a couple of the musical numbers were fun (Mara Davi’s performance in “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree” and the humorous reprise of “Life’s a Joy” by Jay Jaski, Patricia Noonan, Joy Hermalyn and Don Stephenson were both delightful).  Additionally, Alexandra Socha’s insouciant performance as Daisy and Don Stephenson’s humorous depiction of Fidele brought smiles to our faces.  And , as initially noted, the entire cast’s singing voices really were top-notch.

So despite the show’s shortcomings, I’m really not trying to dissuade you from seeing it – even in previews.  Just realize that if you do attend the show (at least in preview), you’re unlikely to leave the theatre humming any of its tunes.

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