Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Review: 'Death Takes A Holiday' Haunts the Laura Pels Theatre Off Broadway

Julian Ovenden (Death/Prince Sirki) and Jill Paice (Grazia)
(all production photos: Joan Marcus)
Note: This review is based on a preview performance of 'Death Takes of Holiday'. The musical's official opening is set for July 21st.

A beautiful and lush score is gorgeously unfurled in the new musical ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre Off Broadway. Maury Yeston, Tony-winning composer and lyricist of ‘Nine’ and ‘Titanic’, has created sweeping numbers for the Broadway-caliber cast. Their expert performances of these songs and the lovely orchestrations stir the emotions at almost every turn. So rich is the music, that despite some awkward lyrical moments, the book pales in comparison. In addition the limited stage movement keeps the production firmly grounded when it should soar.

Julian Ovenden
Originally an Italian play by Alberto Casella presented on Broadway in 1929, the title is more familiar by its film incarnations: the 1934 film starring Frederic March and a 1998 remake with Brad Pitt renamed “Meet Joe Black.” The story, set after World War I in 1921 for the musical, finds Death exhausted and now seeks a respite especially after the destructive years and casualties of the war.

The musical opens with Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice) deliriously happy after celebrating her engagement to Corrado (Max von Essen) in Venice. They along with her parents, Duke Vittorio Lamberti and Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Michael Siberry and Rebecca Luker) and their chauffeur Lorenzo (Jay Jaski), with Corrado at the wheel, drive on a winding road from Venice to their mountain villa. Also in tow are Alice Lamberti (Mara Davi), Grazia’s sister-in-law, and Daisy (Alexandra Socha), Grazia’s best friend. Their voices meld melodically in the glorious opening number that sets the action in motion and which makes forgivable the predictable lyrics and use of chairs for a reasonable facsimile of a period vehicle.

Mara Davi (Alice Lamberti), Rebecca Luker (Duchess Stephanie Lamberti),
Jay Jaski (Lorenzo), Jill Paice, Max von Essen (Corrado), Michael
Siberry (Duke Vittorio Lamberti) and Alexandra Socha (Daisy)
Jay Jaski, Alexandra Socha, Mara Davi, Julian Ovenden and
Simon Jones (Dr. Dario Albione)
Grazia is thrown from the car in a spin after the group avoids Death (Julian Ovenden) who appears on the road. Miraculously none of them especially Grazia are injured. Death is so taken by her beauty at that moment he chooses to take human form as the group once again happily drives home. Death wishes to find out why humans cling so strongly to living.

Julian Ovenden and Mara Davi
At the villa estate, Death makes his appearance known to the duke and explains he is taking the guise of a handsome young Russian Prince, Nikolai Sirki, who had moments earlier committed suicide in a hotel in Europe. He will stay as a weekend guest and warns the duke that no one must know of his true identity or all at the estate will suffer. In one moment of special effect, Death touches the duke's rose boutonniere which then wilts as some of its petals fall to the floor.

As Sirki, the handsome British performer Ovenden, who made his Broadway debut with Nathan Lane in ‘Butley,’ makes a suave and charismatic prince and coupled with his attractive tenor confirms he is a leading musical actor in the making. From “Alive” in a bright voice he joyfully expresses the thought of experiencing life’s simple pleasures to displaying a vocal intensity in “I Thought I Could Live” as he weighs his regret of feeling human emotions after he and Grazia have fallen for each other.

Matt Cavenaugh (Major Eric Fenton), Mara Davi, Max von Essen,
Alexandra Socha, Rebecca Luker, Michael Siberry, Patricia
Noonan (Sophia), Simon Jones and Linda Balgord (Contessa Evangelina)
Matt Cavenaugh
In “More and More,” likely to become a staple of musical singers, Ovenden duets with Paice in the shows most emotionally sweeping song. In this score Yeston knows when songs, even good ones, outlive their welcome. This number like others in the production are succinct in their purpose and so seductive that there's a wish that some melodies to linger much longer.

As to whose credit of fleshing out Grazia’s dialogue and role would belong is up for debate. But as credited to book writers Peter Stone (‘Titanic,’ ‘1776’), who passed away after the project was shelved, and Thomas Meehan (‘The Producers,’ ‘Annie’), the girl appears quite self-absorbed and foolish. But when the character is allowed to sing, Paice is given the chance to display the presence that only few Broadway audience members were able to experience in the short-run of the New York transfer of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White.” Listen to her lilting and lovely soprano in “Who Is This Man?” and “Alone Her With You” as well as in her duets with Ovenden.

Not to be given short shrift, the other players have their chance in spotlight. Luker is given the rare moment to display the silvery tones of her soprano in a restrained solo about motherly loss (“Losing Roberto”). Linda Balgord, as Grazia’s grandmother and Stephanie’s mother, loses the harsh chords of her voice and harnesses them in the elegant “December Time” to expresses its never too late to fall in love to her doctor (Simon Jones) and intimate companion.

Jill Paice and Julian Ovenden
Joy Hermalyn (Cora), Julian Ovenden, Linda Balgord and Patricia Noonan
Yeston has been generous in writing for the women of the show. Davi flirts to the hilt with Sirki in “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree” and Socha, adorable to a fault, sings of unrequited love for and with Corrado. Paice, Davi and Socha are beguiling in “Finally to Know.”

Matt Cavenaugh as Major Eric Fenton, who is Daisy’s older brother and flew with Grazia’s late brother Roberto in the war, makes only a brief appearance in the musical. His entrance could have been more dramatic as the character only appears late in Act 1, but he has one of the best visual elements of humor when his aviator costume is removed in one swoop to reveal a tuxedo underneath. His character only remains to question Sirki’s presence but more importantly reveal more insight about Roberto.

Unfortunately Von Essen is saddled with a stock character and lines. A revealing number about the attraction or background of his and Grazia’s relationship would have been a step in the right direction. The household staff is relegated to playing the comedy elements (why is that usually the case, are they always happy cleaning after and serving their master) with Don Stephenson as the majordomo Fidele standing out among the group.

The small orchestra lead by Kevin Stites with orchestrations by Larry Hochman make Yeston’s music sound grand in scale. On the production design front Catherine Zuber evokes the era in the ethereal dresses and gowns for the women. Set designer Derek McLane economically uses two spiral iron staircases on each side of the stage and a central space surrounded by graceful narrow columns and gardens beyond (above which the orchestra is perched) to transform the stage into the various places in and around the villa.

Alexandra Socha and Max von Essen
Jay Jaski, Patricia Noonan, Don Stephenson (Fidele) and Joy Hermalyn
However it is the stage and set that limits director Doug Hughes. So introspective are the songs that stage directions by Hughes are relegated to pacing and which way each character should face to sing. But such is the perils when taking the reigns of a musical project where choreography is not a major player.

Many will argue the subject matter is a tough sell for a musical. The familiarity of the source material may interest some and the attractive cast a bonus but it is a somber story as death present and past stands ominously over these characters despite the intention to make the romance take precedence. Could the ending be any better as far these characters are concerned? Possibly but as written it appears just.

The limited run of “Death Takes a Holiday” is scheduled to end in September. Even if the musical does not extend its run or transfer to Broadway, the score will be a selling point for presentations outside of New York. Yeston’s music deserves to be preserved and have a life long after this one ends.

8/3/11 Update: Understudy Kevin Earley permanently replaced Julian Ovenden in the role of Death/Prince Sirki after Ovenden withdrew from the production due to laryngitis.

Where: Laura Pels Theatre
Location: 111 West 46th Street, New York City
When: Tue-Sat 7:30pm; Wed, Sat & Sun 2pm
Running Time: 2 hrs 20 min
Ticket Prices:  $76 - $86
Opening: Jul 21, 2011 (previews from Jun 10, 2011)
Closing: Sep 4, 2011
Book Online:
Ticket Services: 212-719-1300
Cast Recording: Death Takes a Holiday - Original Off-Broadway Cast (updated: Aug 8, 2011 Cast recording announced; updated: August 26, 2011 Recording to be released on October 11, 2011)

Mara Davi, Jay Jaski, Jill Paice and Max von Essen


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