Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 4 March 2017
Would we be more ‘half in love with easeful Death’ if instead of some cadaver in a cowl with a scythe he came at us as a handsome young man? Can you love someone ‘more than life’?
Those are the dilemmas which confront Grazia (I just kept thinking of the women’s magazine) Lamberti in Thom Southerland’s ravishing production of Death Takes A Holiday penned by his favoured composer Maury Yeston, who wrote Grand Hotel and Titanic which were rock-solid winners here and at Southwark Playhouse.
Grazia clearly never learned her Italian as I did from couchette train notices like ‘e pericoloso sporgersi’ (it is dangerous to lean out of the window) as, standing up in a speeding sports car, she hits a tree and should by rights be a goner. But Death is so captivated by her beauty, he contrives to both save her and spend a weekend at her father’s ducal palazzo on Lake Garda where Yeston’s American aristo-envy makes everyone apart from the servants at least a Baron, and Death himself masquerades as a Russian prince. Yes, we’ve all seen A Little Night Music although this is neither as musically elegant nor as plausible, and it’s never explained why a villa in Lombardy just after the first world war is quite so rammed with Americans.
Now flirting with operetta, Yeston loves a grandiloquent melody and there are some beauties in Death Takes a Holiday, best of all being ‘More and More’ a rich and classically lovely romantic duet delivered with power and feeling by both Chris Peluso and Zoë Doano. If you listen to it here, accompanied only by the piano, you will be charmed. If you listen to it in the production you will be mown down by the juggernaut effect of a ten-piece band and overblown bombastic orchestrations seemingly designed for the 1812 overture.
Even in the good songs, there are horsey lyrics. There is a moment when Kathryn Akin as Duchess Stephanie sings movingly of her son killed in action during the war – ‘He sat at his window, Stared at the moon. Wrote in his diary, Played bassoon’ – trust me, Mr Yeston, you could count the number of bassoon-playing noble-born North Italian aviators on the fingers of a one-armed navigator bomb aimer. And still have five spare. Couldn’t he just have ‘hummed a tune’ ?
Among the battier senior aristocrats is the wonderful Gay Soper twinkling effortlessly as the Contessa di San Daniele – it must be a naughty coincidence that San Daniele is a type of long-matured old ham – who tells a scurrilous tale about losing her virginity in the back of a gondola and in a wholly unnecessary but entirely delightful duet with Anthony Cable as her doctor and suitor, paints an adorable picture of late love.
With each successive production, Southerland manages to make the Charing Cross Theatre look more and more like a West End house. He gives Death Takes a Holiday a handsome, generous outing, flattering the piece with period-perfect and wittily Barolo-tinged costumes by Jonathan Lipman, and a graceful and flexible set by Morgan Large.
But here may also be its resting place: despite the fact it comes from the same source material as the Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black, both the story and the gothic execution are somewhat niche and I can’t see it as a mainstream hit.