I was a bit delayed in seeing Death Takes a Holiday, the new musical with a score by Maury Yeston and book by the late Peter Stone and the not-late Thomas Meehan. The show is currently running Off Broadway under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company.
My delay in catching Death wasn't from any lack of interest on my part. Trust me, I'm the biggest Maury Yeston fan going. Nine is one of my favorite shows of all time, despite the execrable movie version. Yeston's score to Titanic is among the finest theater scores of the past twenty years, and his work on Grand Hotel raised that otherwise middling property out of the doldrums and into something resembling art.
So I was rather eagerly anticipating Death Takes a Holiday. But these days I have to wait until the press agents invite me to see the shows, and as I'm not exactly Ben Brantley, I usually don't get to attend until shortly after opening night. Well, as you may know, Julien Ovenden, who was originally playing the title character in Death Takes a Holiday, developed laryngitis and had to miss opening night. I was slated to see the show shortly after, but the press people called me and said that Ovenden was still out, and that they would need to reschedule for a time after Ovenden returned.
Well, Ovenden didn't return. In fact, he left the production entirely, so I wound up seeing Death Takes a Holiday with understudy and permanent replacement Kevin Earley in the role of Death/Prince Nikolai Sirki, the ultimate unwanted house. On the whole, I really wish I'd seen the show with Ovenden, a dashingly handsome man who was by all accounts dangerously charming in the role. Earley has a fine voice, more than fine in fact, and he really seemed to be making an effort to imbue the character with both playfulness and menace. But at numerous times in the script characters refer to Sirki's extraordinary beauty, and Earley, while certainly not unattractive, is not what I would call handsome. That may seem superficial, but such concerns are really no different from those of any other show in terms of casting requirements. Hedy Larue in How to Succeed needs to be a bombshell. Sirki needs to be handsome.
As for the show itself, I was rather disheartened at the critical reception, and went in with decidedly measured expectations. But I wound up being pleasantly surprised. In fact, I thought it was glorious, although I did have some minor issues. The show is decidedly old-fashioned, both in conception and execution, and act one was far stronger than act two. But overall the music is thrilling, and contains all the hallmarks of a Yeston score: the lush, soaring melodies, the somber tones amid the unashamed romanticism. Some of the lyrics were a bit more awkward than I'm used to in Yeston's work: there were a few incidents of poor scansion and multiple uses of reversed syntax. But the act one finale, "Alone Here With You," was absolutely gorgeous, with a heartbreaking conceit and plaintive melody to match. It's among the most stirring songs that Yeston has written, and it literally brought tears to my eyes with its sheer beauty and simplicity.
The show's chief liability is the book, although not in terms of its structure. The libretto features a good deal of what is clearly intended to be comedy, but very little of it was landing at the show I saw. I can certainly understand the impetus to lighten the proceedings in a musical about Death, but the jokes seemed rather lame. And yet in terms of the story, the book is sound and dramatically efficient. I could be wrong here, but to me the strong structure of the book bore the mark of the late Peter Stone (1776), while the forced humor seemed drawn with the hand of Thomas Meehan (Hairspray).
For those unfamiliar with the film "Death Takes a Holiday," or the 1998 remake "Meet Joe Black," the story of the musical is essentially this: The Grim Reaper, while carrying out his duties, falls in love with one of his intended victims, and takes a two-day vacation to get to know her better. He drops in rather unceremoniously at the young woman's family villa in Italy, and causes what could reasonably called a stir. While he's in human form, however, no one on earth will die. The libretto starts with this compelling story line and adds in some heartfelt characterizations, although Death Takes a Holiday does fall into the same trap as Titanic, Yeston's previous show, in that there are too many characters to keep track of, or care about.
That said, Death is certainly populated with a good number of people we do actually care about, although the stellar cast clearly aids greatly in this regard. Jill Paice is simply lovely as Grazia, the object of Death's affections, bringing to the role the same disarming presence that made her such a joy to watch in Curtains. As Grazia's mother, Rebecca Luker embodies the kind of heartfelt sturdiness that makes her one of the most dependable performers of my generation. Her showpiece number in the second act, "Roberto," about the son that she lost in World War I, is a stunning combination of a soaring song and a laser-sharp rendition. Michael Siberry gives a wonderfully animated performance, brimming with urgency, as Grazia's father, the only one who's supposed to know Death's true identity.
Director Doug Hughes wisely approaches Death Takes a Holiday for the willful throwback that it is, and doesn't try to modernize the proceedings with any anachronistic production concept or ironic winks. The set design by Derek McLane has an understated elegance, but the cramped spiral staircases framing the proscenium force most cast members to crouch inelegantly to climb the stairs without hitting their heads. Sorry, dude, that's like design 101.
Death Takes a Holiday runs through September 4th at the Laura Pels Theatre. I recommend it to any fans of Maury Yeston, and to anyone who wants to witness what a really lush, romantic score can sound like in person. The story is strong, and the supporting cast is top-notch. I get the feeling that there are plenty of people out there who will disagree with me on this one, but overall I was enchanted by this show. However, I'm genuinely interested in hearing any reasoned responses from those of you who felt otherwise.