A lovely scene has been staged at the Laura Pels Theater, courtesy of the Roundabout Theater. A picturesque villa filled with attractive people is onstage for your viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, viewing is the major pleasure that comes from the new musical Death Takes a Holiday. While the set by Derek McLane, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting by Kenneth Posner are nothing short of delightful, the music, lyrics and books fall sadly short. What this show needs, ironically, is some life breathed into it.
Based on Walter Ferris’ play of the same title (a revision to Alberto Casella’s original), and with a book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, Death Takes a Holiday follows Death (Kevin Earley) as he wanders the Earth for a weekend as a human being. This decision was inspired by his encounter with the young Grazia (Jill Piace), who he was supposed to take to the afterlife with him after a car crash. Besotted with the luminous young woman, he decides to give her another chance at life and perhaps join her in it.
Broadway veteran Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel) has composed some truly lush and lovely music for the show, but the lyrics are not on the same level as the music. Many of the rhymes sound pedestrian, worsened by the beauty of the music surrounding them. (When Death laments on the burdens of his job, he sings, “Famines, earthquakes how they cost me!/ War and illness, they exhaust me.” ) And there are simply too many songs in the show for the music to take focus and truly capture the attention of the audience. Each of the characters is dutifully given a solo during the two-act show, but as all of the characters are not necessary to the story, neither are the songs. They do not further the plot or enhance the development of the characters. Instead, they merely lengthen the show and shorten the audience’s patience.
Helmed by acclaimed Broadway director Doug Hughes, Death Takes a Holiday meanders leisurely through the villa and its cast of characters but it never gains focus or momentum as the romance between Grazia and Death is supposed to progress.
Adopting the persona of Russian prince Nikokai Sirki, Death invites himself to the villa as the family’s guest so he can experience a weekend of living. Earley depicts both the innocence and excitement of experiencing life for the first time as well as the world-weariness that he caused him to take this vacation in the first place. Piace’s Grazia is the personification if innocence and eagerness, with her sweet soprano, blonde curls and wide eyed wonder, but this appearance soon wears thin and one longs for more insight into her character. The two do share some lovely moments onstage, especially during their soaring Act One love duet.
The problem with the love between Death and Grazia (besides the obvious) is that she is already engaged to the moody, demanding Corrado (capably, if somewhat blandly played by Max von Essen). Crushing on Corrado is the young and perky Daisy, played by Alexandra Socha, the sister of Grazia’s late brother Roberto’s friend Major Eric Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh), whose gag with his flying uniform and tuxedo is one of the show’s more amusing moments. However, the song he sings promptly after donning the tuxedo is entirely too long and confusing. Also at the villa is Robert’s widow, Alice Lamberti (Mara Davi) makes a pass at the handsome houseguest but is quickly intimidated by him.
Grazia’s parents are played by Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry, who are less impressed by their houseguest. Luker, always entrancing onstage, gives her second-act solo “Losing Robert” an especially moving rendition. Simon Jones and Linda Balgord, former lovers who are now doctor and patient, also provide some sweet moments of levity along with the Duke’s perpetually eavesdropping majordomo, Fidele (overplayed by Don Stephenson).
The strength or weakness of the cast notwithstanding, if the romance between Grazia and Death does not feel authentic, the show does not succeed. And despite the numerous songs about love, sung alone and to each other, Grazia’s decision to depart the Earth with Death does not feel like a romantic triumph. Instead, it comes across as a disappointment – much like this show.