Death Takes a Holiday continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 4 March.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento once again give Maury Yeston the five-star treatment, with the European premiere of the composer/lyricist’s 2011 musical Death Takes a Holiday.
Based on Alberto Casella’s play La Morte in Vacanza (1924) – the English language version of which was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1934 starring Fredric March and remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt – the macabre musical tells the fantastical story of the Grim Reaper’s visit to a ducal family in 1920s Italy.
With a soaring, symphonic score, and luscious songs performed by an array of some of the West End’s most sensational talents, Southerland’s production is every bit as wonderful as his previous Yeston shows at Southwark (Titanic and Grand Hotel), and a fine ending to his American trilogy at Charing Cross (Titanic and Ragtime).
In the hands of book writers Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, Death Takes a Holiday is a brooding, magical meditation on love and death, but woven with the most delicate of comic threads.
In this reworking of Casella’s story, Death (Chris Peluso) hangs up his scythe for a weekend after encountering the beautiful Grazia Lamberti (Zoë Doano), who, thanks to his intervention, survives what should have been a fatal car accident.
Enchanted by her beauty and intrigued by the notion of love, Death invites himself to the home of Grazia’s father, Duke Vittoria Lamberti (Mark Inscoe), to learn more about the vagaries of human life and to understand why people are so fearful of death.
Peluso is perfectly cast as the handsome and alluring Death or, as he manifests to the Duke’s house guests, the Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki. As well as his Hollywood good looks and killer cheekbones, he has a stunning voice, which he needs to carry off Yeston’s epic songwriting.
He is matched on all fronts by the gorgeously cinematic Doano, who has the class and grace needed to pull off the role of his inamorata. Together (particularly ‘More and More’), they’re a dream.
They’re supported by a dream cast too – nods to James Gant for his expertly nuanced comic turn as butler Fidele, and to Gay Soper and Anthony Cable as the Countess Evangelina and her Baron Dario Albione, whose passions are reawakened after decades by Death’s magical influence (‘December Time’).
It is good to see Samuel Thomas make an appearance as Lamberti’s friend Major Eric Fenton (‘Roberto’s Eyes’), although sadly he’s not given a whole lot more to do.
The music is what you’d expect from Yeston – despite the chamber setting, the score is sumptuous and richly textured, with MD Dean Austin’s 10-piece band sounding like the Berlin Phil. (Kudos to the sound team for the impeccable balance.)
Yeston – with the help of orchestrator Larry Hochman – captures 1920s Italy with a soundtrack that combines Baroque harpsichords and Neapolitan mandolins with Franz Lehar operettas.
His signature chorale writing is not as evident in this more intimate piece but the group singing is still delightful and beautifully interwoven (‘Something Happened’, ‘Life’s a Joy’).
There’s a melancholic, wistful vibe throughout, as each character – and pretty much everyone gets their time in the limelight – vocalises their innermost thoughts and feelings about life and death.
It all looks as gorgeous as it sounds thanks to costume designer Jonathan Lipman’s dark red and black outfits, Morgan Large’s beautiful and ever-shifting sets, and Matt Daw’s dramatic lighting design.
The book falters a little in places, especially at the top of the show, as it struggles to find a consistent voice and make you care enough about the characters. Is it a dark comedy? Should I be laughing? But on the whole, it succeeds. Southerland does his utmost to keep the pace from dragging, but he also gives this classy, elegant, contemplative show the room it needs to breathe.
Death Takes a Holiday signals a welcome end (for me, at least) to the high-octane pantomime season and is a fabulous start to the year for the Charing Cross – the theatre where shows no longer go to die.
Tickets for Death Takes a Holiday at the Charing Cross Theatre are available HERE.
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