Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 4 March 2017
It is rare that a musical is presented with such exquisite elegance as Thom Southerland delivers with Death Takes A Holiday, making its European premier at the Charing Cross Theatre. The essence of Maury Yeston’s musical, itself drawn from Alberto Casella’s 1920s Italian play, is that of a love story spun from the finest filigree, yet, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, played out against a hauntingly gothic backdrop.
The prologue sees the beautiful Grazia thrown from a speeding car in a horrific crash. Her death must surely be unavoidable but Death himself, so captivated by her beauty, spares her. Intrigued by the mysteries of humanity, whose lives he has claimed and stalked over the centuries, for one weekend only Death grants himself two days of mortality. Assuming the identity of a Russian Prince, he visits Grazia’s home as an unexpected house guest and what follows is quite literally a fairy tale of enchanted love and ultimate tragedy. Throughout Death’s weekend vacation no-one (anywhere) dies, Grazia’s family discover new depths of relationships, while Grazia herself falls in love with Death, in a passion that is as deeply doomed as it is reciprocated.
It’s a brave story to stage – for to suspend the audience’s disbelief and convincingly create a world that is potentially of the darkest horror, requires nothing less than precision stagecraft. Leading the show are Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso as Grazia and Death. The two are magnificent and with both having only recently led in major West End roles, their pedigree is breathtaking.
Zoano’s soprano voice combines power with fragility. Her four solos are compelling and commanding, while her duet with Peluso, More And More, is a heartbreaker. Likewise Peluso, whose striking performance captures the inscrutable paradox of his weekend of humanity. We believe he is a man with the ultimate of powers and yet at the same time reduced to a childlike curiosity when confronted with that most profound and rawest aspect of humanity, the power of love.
It’s impossible not to care for nearly all of the supporting characters too. Mark Inscoe is the Duke Lamberti, Grazia’s father, already mourning the recent death of his son and as the host, charged by Death not to reveal his house guest’s true identity. As he watches his daughter fall for Death’s charms and knowing what could potentially await her, Inscoe’s delivery of this most complex of emotional struggles adds yet another layer of tragic beauty to the plot. In a modest role Kathryn Akin’s Stephanie, Grazia’s mother delivers the most poignant of numbers that mourns her son with Losing Roberto, Yeston’s composition truly touching the heart.
Samuel Thomas offers another ingenious cameo as the battle-hardened fighter pilot who recognises the Russian Prince for who he really is, while James Gant’s butler Fidele, offers occasional moments of well nuanced comedy that are beacons of relief along the story’s bittersweet arc. There are equally weighted moments of brilliance from Anthony Cable and Gay Soper as a veteran star-crossed couple finding love, their ageing temporarily paused during the weekend’s magic and from Scarlett Courtney and Helen Turner as Grazia’s contemporaries.
The creative talent behind the show is as topnotch as the cast with Morgan Large’s set proving as simple as it is wondrous. A rotating set of palazzo walls and doorways, graced by rococo chairs, ingeniously create the Lamberti home, complemented by Jonathan Lipman’s period-perfect costuming, with Matt Daw’s lighting proving both sinister and spectacular in equal measure. Hidden away offstage, Dean Austin’s 10 piece band could easily pass for a far larger West End orchestra, such is their treatment of Yeston’s soaring score.
The show deserves to be snapped up for a longer run or transfer – it really is that good, but until then rush to the Charing Cross Theatre. Death Takes A Holiday is the darkest of fairytales in a work of musical theatre that is at the very top of its game.
Runs until 4th March
Photo credit: ScottRylander