Friday, July 22, 2011

REVIEW: Death Takes a Holiday

Review of the matinee preview performance on Saturday, July 16 at the Laura Pels Theatre off-Broadway in New York City.  Starring Linda Balgord, Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Simon Jones, Rebecca Luker, Julian Ovenden, Jill Paice, Michael Siberry, Alexandra Socha, Don Stephenson, and Max Von Essen.  Book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan.  Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.  Musical staging by Peter Pucci.  Direction by Doug Hughes.  2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Grade: A+

Like a refreshing, cool glass of freshly squeezed lemonade, Death Takes a Holiday goes down pretty smoothly: sweet and tart at the same time, with little bits to chew on before the whole drink is gone.  The musical, based on a play by Alberto Cassella (American translation by Walter Ferris), may, at first blush, seem hardly a candidate for a joyful summer's night of theatre.  It is, after all, about Death taking human form to see why the rest of us fear and loathe him.  His "holiday" from the job is here chronicled as he joins a family at their Italian villa, post World War I.  These are a wealthy, international bunch, in a war-weary world coming to terms with the Great War's outcomes.  Given the state of the world today, it isn't much of a stretch to see how the show might apply to its audience.  Yes, the musical makes us pause (ever so slightly) to contemplate our own mortality - maybe just enough to re-check our "bucket lists" to make very sure that "falling in love" is on it.  Our two hours together will be spent with an eye to the future, with families to appreciate and lives to live.

That the late Peter Stone and the very much alive Thomas Meehan have concocted perhaps one of musical theatre's tightest, fat-free books in decades is reason enough to run to the Laura Pels Theatre and snatch up whatever tickets remain.  But these masters of the art form (collectively they are responsible for 1776, Annie, The Producers and Titanic, among others) have created an even better reason to rush the box office:  their book resonates with an unabashed joy for life, a sense of humor that runs from the charmingly silly to the thoughtfully witty, and all with a sharp poignancy that leaves you feeling a high so rare in the theatre these days.  It is not just a laugh fest, nor is it trying to be "important."  It is a simply remarkable, thought-provoking, and wonderfully entertaining show.

Add yet another American musical master to the mix and the potential for brilliance is that much greater.  When it comes to smart, sharp lyrics that are simultaneously brain food and easily digestible words of wisdom, there really is no one better suited to this romantic chamber musical than the great (and woefully underappreciated) Maury Yeston.  Fans of his work, myself included, marvel at his sense of the grander ideas as well as the smaller notions that represent human nature.  We appreciate that his lyrics can take a very specific situation and make it universal, and our ears perk up at his lush, soaring melodies, just as we tingle and smile at his catchier tunes.  Here is a man who has given the world his own Phantom, Nine, Grand Hotel and Titanic.  If the latter on that list proved that anything could be turned into a musical, Death Takes a Holiday proves the same profound, innately sad topic can sing on a smaller, more humorous scale and still pack an emotional punch, without leaving us a depressed mess at the curtain call.

"In the Middle of Your Life"/
"Nothing's Happened"

I will say now, and I suspect other reviews will bear me out on this: this show is not for everyone.  It thrives on a very carefully calculated and heady mix of modern musical know-how and an old school - and I don't mean the 60's or 70's - style of theatre.  Director Doug Hughes and choreographer Peter Pucci set the tone immediately as the gauzy grand drape rises and the principal cast assembles on a foggy stage to create a small omnibus made simply of chairs and pantomimed steering; the cast moves from side to side as the car takes each turn, and they occasionally bounce in their seats as the bumpy road dictates.  Their songs, "In the Middle of Your Life" and "Nothing Happened," pointedly and joyfully take us from the thrill of unexpected love to the instant guilt associated with an accident, only to feel the rush of relief as, miracle of miracles, no one is hurt, not even a young, lovely woman who is thrown from the car.  Unable to explain this happy turn of events, they reassure each other and convince themselves that, indeed, nothing happened.  In this scene, one also becomes instantly aware that despite the modern staging, the acting and the very characters are painted with an oddly broad stroke.  Every gesture is large, every emotion even larger.  The actors seem to speak with an affectation rather than a genuine tone, and the humor and pathos seem equally big and obvious.  In short, our eyes are watching a very 21st century staging, but our ears are picking up a very early 20th century sensibility.  There are, throughout the entire show, moments like this.  Simple ideas are simply presented and blown out of proportion as musicals will do. 

Don't be fooled, either.  The brilliance is in the details, the undercurrents and the universal themes.  These moments are also not hard to find - remember I said this show goes down smoothly.  But it is the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of the two styles that makes this a show not necessarily for everyone.  It requires an audience to enjoy a modern staging like the opening scene.  And it requires an audience to accept broadly drawn types - wealthy but distraught parents still mourning the loss of their son to the war, a flighty, ethereal sister/daughter in love with being in love, an older generation of people who have had an unrequited love for each other for decades, the young upstart guy worried that he won't fit in, the pair of moderns, one dancing life away, the other desperate to grow up, and the dashing young war hero who revels in his heroism even as he questions his own mortality.  To top it all off, it requires an audience to listen.  To fully appreciate this gem, one must listen closely to not only the broad strokes and broader jokes, but to the details revealed in witty, sophisticated conversations and the occasional solo number.  That is asking a lot of an audience, but, trust me here, the rewards for your full attention pay off and handsomely.  Both Mr. Hughes and Mr. Pucci are to be commended for finding this difficult balance and staging it so crisply and deeply throughout the entire course of the show.

"Shimmy Like They Do in Paree"

Yeston's score is full of wonderful ballads, like the touching "Losing Roberto," where a mother is unwittingly telling Death himself why the loss of her son is so completely devastating, or the soaring act one closer, "Alone Here with You," where a young woman is professing her love to Death.  There are the clever and jaunty numbers that open each act, "Nothing's Happened" and "Something's Happened."  And the dance-y "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree," where a Modern shows Death the joy that being happy brings to life.  And there is the song "Finally to Know" where all three young ladies of the cast sing of what it is to finally understand and appreciate love.  It is the best number of the show (which is no small feat, strong as this score is), and is instantly on my list of the best musical theatre songs of all time.  I wanted so badly to stand up at the end of this number to show my appreciation: the performance and the content were blissfully superior to pretty much everything I've seen in recent years.

The world created onstage for Death Takes a Holiday is much like the show itself, simple and straightforward, yet magical and complex.  And all of it with a witty sophistication that is also subtle and elegant.  Derek McLane's setting is a large open space, with marbled floors, tall Roman columns and archways made entirely of flowered vines and twinkling lights.  In the distance, at times, one can see a distant shore and the Mediterranean.  Kenneth Posner's lighting design matches the set and the show perfectly, alternating real life lighting (and considerable shadows when appropriate) with more romantic, fantasy-like lighting.  And Catherine Zuber's exquisite costumes reveal, even at a quick glance, much about the characters.  I mused that if this were a silent film, with only the visual aesthetic provided by these designers and some underscoring (amazing and beautiful orchestrations by recent Tony winner Larry Hochman), one could still follow the story with ease.

All of this first-rate work would be for naught without this superbly cast ensemble.  Even the smaller servant roles (Jay Jaski, Patricia Noonan, Joy Hermalyn) are expertly played, especially and noticeably during the company numbers.  As the majordomo and confidante to the man of the house, Don Stephenson manages to milk every laugh he can from his funny, if obvious role.  (Remember, I said these roles were, on the surface, types.)

TOP: The Servants
BOTTOM: Matt Cavenaugh

In a small but pivotal role as war hero and friend to the deceased Roberto, Matt Cavenaugh provides the swagger and machismo to go along with his matinee idol looks.  His very telling ballad - "Roberto's Eyes" - soars to the rafters as he belts and emotes in a way I've never seen him do before, and the effect is spell-binding.  He also plays older brother to the younger "Modern," Daisy, played with a refreshingly coy and playful air by Alexandra Socha, who once again proves that her star is on the rise.  When she is onstage, one can't help but be captivated by her take on this brash, flirtatious woman-child.  Her charms work more on us than they do her intended catch, Corrado, played by Max Von Essen.  For years I have heard what a great actor this guy is, and I have always managed to miss him.  It was well worth the wait, and all of the hearsay is true.  This guy has "it."  He manages to take the role of the often clueless and jilted lover and play all of his angst and anger without being annoying.  He is a commanding presence, another actor you find yourself drawn to whenever he is onstage.  His duet with Miss Socha, "What Do You Do," is all the more charming because these two are singing it.  The younger set in the cast is rounded out by the terrifically energetic Mara Davi, the American gal with her finger on the pulse of pop culture, and tempered by the wisdom that comes from heartbreak at an early age - her character is the widow of Roberto.  It is this wisdom that provides the first inkling that there are darker forces at play in this otherwise silly romp.

Alexandra Socha, Max Von Essen, Mara Davi and Julian Ovenden

The oldest generation is sweetly represented by two wonderful actors, Simon Jones and Linda Balgord.  Both play the eldest inhabitants of the villa with a smarts that only aged wisdom can bring, and with a wonderfully youthful take on love during the twilight years.  Their duet, "December Time," is simply charming.  The parents of Roberto and their younger daughter Grazia, are played by Michael Siberry and Rebecca Luker, and both are given meaty roles to work with.  He plays the comedy and the tragedy of the situation he is in (he knows Death is here and isn't allowed to tell a soul or someone will die) with a grace and dignity that makes this implausible turn of events completely believable without being too giddy or too maudlin.  Ms. Luker plays the worried mother with enough nuance that she steers far from being a soap opera-ish matriarch, and when she finally gets to unleash her glorious voice and considerable acting talents in "Losing Roberto," we all feel her grief as if it were our own personal tragedy.

TOP: Julian Ovenden and Linda Balgourd
CENTER: Julian Ovenden and Simon Jones
BOTTOM: Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry

I have waited, literally for years, to find out why the rest of the theatre world is so smitten with Jill Paice.  I've seen her several times and have appreciated her work, but never really understood the overall appeal.  With her performance here, I can finally see what all the fuss is about.  As the young lady in love with love (and the object of Death's affection), Ms. Paice expertly navigates the treacherous waters of this role which requires her to fanciful, stubborn, drunk with love, and in the depths of despair as she faces an impossible life-changing choice.  Her role is written with some of the broadest strokes, and it is to her credit that she never once goes for the easy, overblown way of conveying these huge emotions.  A lesser actress would overplay, where Paice chooses carefully when to wear her heart on her sleeves, when to play it close to the vest, and most interestingly, when to be more subtle.  And what a voice!  Her solo  numbers, including "How Will I Know," are skillfully and beautifully rendered.  But it is her work with her co-star that is at the heart of this show, and their chemistry and marvelously blended voices make each of their scenes and duets incredibly pleasing to the heart and ear.

Julian Ovenden and Jill Paice

"Death" - Julian Ovenden

Much has been written lately about the show's star, Julian Ovenden, a Brit, whose American star is born with this amazing once-in-a-lifetime performance.  He is nothing short of spectacular in every sense that he could be.  He is as dynamic as he is handsome, charming as he is enigmatic, and mesmerizing, even when you know you shouldn't be this drawn to the character.  The man has it all: perfect comic timing, a beguiling romanticism, a sexy allure, a childlike sense of wonder, and joie de'vivre that is utterly captivating.  Thankfully, the character he plays must also have these qualities!  And his voice!  Oh, his voice.  What an instrument.  His solo in act one, "Alive," is a joyful tour-de-force, and each of his ballad duets with Ms. Paice is just stunning. 

But it is his act two solo, "I Thought I Could Live," that is the real culmination of his role, when he, Death, begins to understand why humans fear him, and why they don't want to give up on life.  It is a stunning turning point for both character and plot, and it is so wonderfully rendered.  Ultimately, it is the point at which everything spirals into the show's conclusion.  And one can safely say that Ms. Paice and Mr. Ovenden's performances are what make the ending a nail-biter right up until the end.  Even if you go in knowing, the final moments of this musical will have you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath.

I suspect that once this show's New York life is over (and I hope it will be some time before that happens) this show will find itself as a staple in regional and local theatres.  It is one set, with a small cast of actors that range in age from 20's to 70's.  And it seems so simple.  And that is what I fear most about this show's future.  Without a director that understands the demands and styles of the book or a cast that is fully on board with playing a variety of styles within one performance, the show may come off either as a silly trifle or an oddity.  And that would be a true shame.  Death Takes a Holiday, the musical, isn't for everyone, probably, but for this theatergoer, it is that rare perfection of art and entertainment as one intertwined piece.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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