Death: Tunes to Die For
Death was out sick when I attended the musical Death Takes a Holiday (Laura Pels Theatre), by Maury Yeston, Thomas Meehan, and the late Peter Stone, and it took some wrangling before the press reps agreed to admit me. I can't say they were wholly wrong: Death's understudy, Kevin Earley, looks handsome and sings even more handsomely, but has clearly not had the rehearsal time to build up this complex and sinister role. He makes Death seem, on the whole, a mild and undemanding fellow.
Still, it's hard to guess how much a fully evolved characterization might have added to this oddly indeterminate piece of musical theater. Alberto Casella's 1924 play, a high-comedy chiller bearing a heavy load of metaphysics, is itself an oddity in its merger of Barrie-like Edwardian fantasy with post–World War I disillusionment
Death, tired from his wartime years of overwork, takes a long-overdue vacation, turning up at the villa of an Italian duke (Michael Siberry) and duchess (Rebecca Luker) disguised as a Russian prince. He promptly falls in love with his host's daughter, Grazia (Jill Paice), a serious-minded girl who's engaged to, but not enthralled by, the neighbors' son, Corrado (Max von Essen). Only the duke and his jittery majordomo, Fidele (a drolly italicized performance by Don Stephenson), know the prince's secret, but the older folk soon guess, and tension builds around whether the unnerving visitor will or won't take Grazia with him when he leaves.
Yeston's score aims, rightly, to give this somber holiday romance an operatic sweep as well as a classic musical's tunefulness. His large cast is heavily stocked with first-rate singing actors: Linda Balgord, Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, and Simon Jones make significant contributions. But Yeston is let down, on a variety of fronts, by his artistic collaborators, and to some extent by his own limitations, particularly as a lyricist. Beautiful as the show sounds, in its cavalier leaps through one pleasant melody after another, it never coalesces dramatically, simply remaining a string of lovely tunes in various styles. The Meehan-Stone script, busily hunting diversionary gags, offers its human characters no depth that could challenge Grazia's fascination with her fatal wooer, which may explain why director Doug Hughes and choreographer Peter Pucci tend to leave them either standing in an undifferentiated choral clump or drifting idly about upstage. It's a pity—so much ambition, effort, and care producing so dissipated an effect.
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