It’s an absurd thought, really: the idea that Death Takes A Holiday, as if that were possible. There’s always a lingering feeling in this production of artificiality and this being all a bit hypothetical. It is, however, an intriguing idea to explore, especially when there are so many other characters besides Death (Chris Peluso) at various stages of their lives. The stage is not too cluttered (unlike the last musical production at the Charing Cross Theatre, Ragtime) and neither is the storyline.
There isn’t, as far as I could deduce, a moral standpoint being made in favour of living in an honourable manner so as to leave a decent legacy to those left behind at one’s passing, and certainly no religious or quasi-religious proclamations. Death is reduced, if that is the right word, to a sort of force that goes around turning people’s lights out when their number is up. That’s all he does, but a flimsy premise that World War One has left an omnipresent entity in need of a weekend away in a single location didn’t quite convince me.
That said, the show has a lot going for it. A beautiful score is delivered by the band led by Dean Austin – there are ten musicians but they do at times sound like forty. The musical numbers are very much the sort of soaring melodies that are so beloved of West End and Broadway audiences – perhaps ‘More and More’ is the most majestic of them, one of those love ballads, sung by Prince Sirki (also Chris Peluso, suitably charming) and Grazia Lamberti (Zoë Doano). Other tunes, like ‘Life’s a Joy’, are jauntier, and allow for some likeable choreography.
Both spoken dialogue and sung lyrics are appropriately intertwined, and the (living) characters surrounding Death keep making inadvertent quips with double meanings for the audience to enjoy even in the midst of potential impending doom. Fidele (James Gant), one of the few characters aware from the earliest possible moment that, to quote a musical number, ‘Death is in the House’, is palpably concerned – terrified even, but he continues to carry out his duties. He’s a marvel to watch. Most, if not all, characters get their own number, even if this means a) some characters are a tad underwritten, and b) the audience is sometimes effectively sat there waiting for a song to finish so the story can progress. But those sort of musical numbers as they are presented here are always very pleasant. I particularly enjoyed ‘December Time’, with older characters Baron Dario Albione (Anthony Cable) and the gloriously named Contessa Evangelina di San Danielli (Gay Soper) singing their hearts out.
It would be wrong to say there’s always appreciable chemistry throughout between Sirki and Grazia, although this is to do with the narrative, not any deficiency in casting or performer proficiency. The ending, as my fellow theatregoer pointed out, is given away early on in the first half – surprises are scarce in a show that instead focuses on delivering some decent songs and a steadily increasing sense amongst the characters that life, short as it is, is to be cherished.
This musical is dramaturgically ridiculous, and it knows it. For its characters to declare, as they do at one stage in the second half, that they are going to sit around and tell stories smacks of dramatic laziness to me. But I warmed to this sympathetic and bittersweet production by the end.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Thom Sutherland directs the UK premiere of Death Takes a Holiday, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan, the European premiere of the follow-up to Titanic by its Tony Award-winning composers.
In Northern Italy, shortly after World War One, Death disguises himself as a handsome young prince to try to understand why life is so precious and death so feared. But when he unexpectedly falls in love with a newly engaged young woman, this mysterious stranger discovers that love may in fact be stronger than death.
With a book by multi Tony Award winners Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, based on the 1928 Italian play of the same name which went on to inspire the movie, Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt, and a lush, romantic score by multi Tony Award winner Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine), this is a soaring story of the preciousness of life and the overwhelming power of love.
Death Takes A Holiday was nominated for 11 Drama Desk Awards when it premiered Off Broadway in 2011.
Charing Cross Theatre
The Arches, Villiers Street, London, WC2N 6NL
Booking Until: 4th Mar 2017
Book Tickets for Death takes a Holiday