Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 4 March 2017
“I’m Death. ‘And you’re on holiday?’”
The ways in which the titles of shows are worked into the script are a source of endless amusement and new musical Death Takes A Holiday is no exception, pointing up as it does the ridiculousness of the show’s conceit. Based on the 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza, which has been adapted for the silver screen a few times, most recently in the Brad Pitt stinker Meet Joe Black. Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan’s book tells the story of what happens when Death falls head over heels for an Italian duke’s daughter and so decides to take a couple of days annual leave to follow through.
Posing as a Russian prince, he joins the aristocratic family at their Lake Garda country pile, ostensibly to learn about human emotions but truth is, there’s only one he’s that keen on. And given that the main object of his study, Grazia, is a fan of the moody gothic look – despite being engaged to someone else – there’s little doubt as to whether will be alone when he returns to the day job at the end of the weekend. It’s a curious lack of dramatic imperative for a show running over two hours, especially since there’s the potential to have a proper love triangle, instead Maury Yeston’s expansive score is left to fill the gaps.
It is a richly orchestrated (by Larry Hochman) and lush sounding (from MD Dean Austin) suite of music, though it has a tendency towards the overbearing as it plays at full pelt throughout, where the introduction of some more light and shade could potentially be interesting. And as committed a leading duo as Chris Peluso and Zoë Doano are as Death and Grazia, there’s a lack of real chemistry sparking between their characters, hamstrung by the seriousness with which the production is executed, even in the reliable hands of director Thom Southerland.
For the show is considerably more fun in the moments when it intermittently acknowledges that Death, along with everyone else here, is horny. Maids seductively picking up towels off the floor, widows offering a night of ‘shimmying’, hapless friends lusting after the newly engaged, there’s definitely something in the air here in Lake Garda and that is where the life is here. And even as it skirts with being camp (I LOVED James Gant’s servant-in-the-know), rare moments of real heart emerge as in the truly touching duet between Gay Soper and Anthony Cable who, for a tantalising moment, look as if they might be able to beat the odds for a last chance at love.
The lack of an effective book means that Yeston’s score is allowed to meander somewhat, offering up solos to all and sundry, though this does mean that Samuel Thomas (who I saw understudy The Last Five Years brilliantly) gets a show-stopping moment as a Great War survivor. And if Morgan Large’s Italianate design is most cleverly conceived, there’s also some misguided choreography with chairs that sits very oddly. It’s lovely to look at and to listen to for the most part, but the flimsy book and its lack of philosophical depth leave you hoping that Death has taken out travel insurance as well as this holiday.