Friday, July 22, 2011

Death Takes A Holiday @ The Laura Pels Theatre

Death Takes A Holiday ~ a love story with a twist . . . death.  This new musical, with a book by Thomas Meehan (The Producers and Hairspray) and Peter Stone (Titanic and 1776) and music & lyrics by Maury Yetson (Nine), asks the question, “Is love stronger than death?”  However, the question that goes through the audiences head is somewhat different, “Is this simple story worth the two and a half hour investment?”  With a simple score and predictable plot, this old-fashioned musical (while sweet) fails to deliver big time thrills.  In the defense of this new piece, Roundabout Theatre Company stocked it with big time talent that makes every subdued song pop and every minor joke funny; thus leaving one with an “okay” feeling about the piece as a whole.
As one might have guessed from the title, this piece (based on the dramatic play by Alberto Casella) tells the story of what would happen if Death took a few days off and entered the human world.  The problems all begin when Grazia Lamberti and family are heading home from her engagement party, and her husband-to-be, Corrado Montelli, decided to drive a little too fast on a long dark road.  Without much warning, Grazia is thrown from the car and mysteriously survives without even a scratch.  It is soon revealed that for the first time in thousands of years, Death could not kill has was planned to do; instead he comes up with a brilliant scheme.  Appearing before Duke Vittorio Lamberti, Grazia’s father, Death convinces him to let him stay on at his house for the weekend posed as a Russian prince.  It is not long into Death’s holiday that he begins to stir up trouble in the Lamberti household as he ultimatley falls in love with Grazia leaving her with the choice of love or life.
This new romantic musical features a spell binding cast of 14 players that poor their heart and soul into this show each night.  Leading the cast are conflicted lovers Jill Paice (Curtains) as Grazia and Julian Ovenden (Butley) as Death.  The two work wonderfully together filling the theatre with their class music theatre style voices that lend themselves to the score perfectly.  The two work wonders with the material that they are given forcing the audience to invest in these two characters fully.  Ovenden shines 100% with the song Alive, which features an up-beat tune that allows the full potential of his comedic acting and strong vocals to shine through.  Other standouts in this talented ensemble were Mara Davi (A Chorus Line) as Alice Lamberti, Jay Jaski (Children and Art) as Lorenzo, and Alexandra Socha (Spring Awakening) as Daisy Fenton.  Davi portrays Grazia’s lively sister-in-law who has recently become widowed with the passing of Grazia’s brother.  Davi fills the dark piece with life and energy – always there to dance in the halls or brighten up a full cast music number.  Jaski brings in the big laughs playing the nosey butler to the Lamberti household.  His performance is fresh, funny, and all around entertaining – a true performer.  Fenton plays Grazia’s down-on-her-luck friend.  Hopelessly in love with Grazia’s fianc√©, she is more than overjoyed to see Death enter the household.  Fenton is light on her feet, yet grounded in her personality making her irresistible to watch.  All three of these performers blend nicely into the rest of the ensemble that features some big name talents such as Matt Cavenaugh (West Side Story), Michael Siberry (Spamalot), and Rebecca Luker (Mary Poppins).
This simple story was re-imagined by a group of truly talented writers, unfortunately, it was a little too close to feeling like real life death.  With songs that are not memorable, a book that was a little to dated, and a plot that was way too predictable, Death Takes A Holiday was just a little bit too old fashioned.  While one can assume that was the overall approach that these creators were going for (seeing how the piece is set in the year 1921), the whole show, and pardon the upcoming pun, needed a bit more life.  With all of this said, however, this new work was a visual pleasure.  With directon by Doug Hughes (Tony Award winner for Doubt), scenic design by Derek McLane (Tony Award winner for 33 Variations), costume design by Catherine Zuber (Tony Award winner for South Pacific), and lighting design by Kenneth Posner (Tony Award winner for The Coast of Utopia), this musical defeated the week writing to create a fest for the audiences eyes.  Stunning plants, columns, and spiral staircases accented the vibrant costumes ripped right from the ‘20s that were lit with a certain ambience that was both romantic and bone chilling at the same time.  The technical elements of this Off-Broadway piece were not lacking in any way to most full scale Broadway musicals.
Death Takes A Holiday takes a traditional love story and flips it upside down.  While the story and score might not be as glamorous as one might hope, this new musical is sweet and filled with heart.  With a Tony Award winning creative team and a cast that is full of energy, this piece might be just what an avid theater go-er wants to see.  It is a gracious reminder of how musicals were before all of the expensive special effects and flying craziness.

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