Thom Southerland's latest production as artistic director of the Charing Cross Theatre is the hitherto unseen 2011 musical DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY with a score by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan. This follows on from Southerland's past success with Yeston's musicals GRAND HOTEL and TITANIC but sadly DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY is one of diminished returns.
After the success of TITANIC Yeston and bookwriter Peter Stone wanted a smaller canvas to work on and the release of the Brad Pitt turkey MEET JOE BLACK drove them back to that film's source material, LA MORTE IN VACANZA a 1924 Italian play which later became the Broadway success DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY and subsequent film starring Fredric March.
The musical took an astonishing 14 years from initial idea to stage and ironically one of the hold-ups was Peter Stone's death in 2003. Yeston chose Broadway writer Thomas Meehan to complete the work but I felt this is reflected in the script which refuses to - um... - come to life. Meehan's natural style is in musical comedy - ANNIE, THE PRODUCERS, HAIRSPRAY - so the existential drama of Death observing human reactions to him are an uncomfortable fit.
A rich Italian family are returning to their villa after celebrating their daughter's engagement but she is thrown from one of the cars as it spins out of the control, she is surprisingly unharmed from this accident. A shadowy figure had been seen before the accident and the man later appears at the villa and reveals to the father that he is Death, still recovering from the exhaustion of his labours during the First World War and wishing to spend time with humans wanting to understand his effect on them and their dreams.
Disguised as a Russian prince, Death spends time with the family and guests but feels an unmistakable attraction for the daughter Grazia who is drawn to the mysterious stranger too, much to the anger of her fiancee Corrado. Among the guests are the widow and best friend of Grazia's brother who was killed in the war and they both feel uneasy in the stranger's presence. Nothing can stop Grazia's attraction to Death however, and as news filters through that no-one has died in the world since the week before, Grazia must decide where her future lies...
The allegorical source material is so unique that the chamber musical must hit the right tone and it is this that the production struggles with. Southerland's direction and the cast are certainly po-faced but despite Matt Daw's atmospheric lighting and Morgan Large's economical but persuasive crumbling Italian villa, the production is let down by several ungainly performances and the downbeat, thin book.
Maury Yeston's score is certainly awash with doomy romance but too often it sounded like his TITANIC score: the solo number "Roberto's Eyes" sung by the dead son's friend as he describes a fatal plane crash was an almost note-for-note copy of TITANIC's "Mr Andrew's Vision" where the last moments of the ship are recounted. The romantic ballads were too interchangeable and again a duet for an elderly loving couple only reminded one of the similar song for TITANIC'S Mr and Mrs Strauss. Yeston is a good composer but bearing in mind how long the show took to write one would have hoped for more originality.
The cast with their cut-glass, stage school accents did little to suggest a Venetian family - Henley-On-Thames yes, Venice no. There was also too little variety of performance across the quite large cast of 14, when they all crowded onto the set at times it made me think that a few characters could easily have been dropped to concentrate the attention more on the lead roles.
American actor Chris Peluso was a bit too lightweight to convince as Death as he hung around like a lovesick teenager at an ex's wedding but it was the performance of Zoe Doano as Grazia which made the production so earthbound, her shrill singing and showroom dummy performance did nothing to suggest Grazia's conflict in choosing life or death - she barely suggested if the choice was between red or clear nail varnish. There were nice performances from James Gant as the butler Fidele, fearful of the new guest after finding out his secret, and Scarlett Courtney as a guest quietly in love with Grazia's fiancee but they shone only occasionally
There is a musical lurking within DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY but I suspect a few more years might be needed to get it exactly right, and certainly a new writer revisiting the source play.
Nice poster though...