Brilliant Songs Bring Brooding ‘Holiday’ to Life: Jeremy Gerard

Julian Ovenden and Mara Davi in "Death Takes a Holiday" in New York. The play is directed by Doug Hughes. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theatre Company via Bloomberg

Review by Jeremy Gerard

July 23 Bloomberg) -- The female fauna is lush, the food four star and there are hot and cold running servants.

What better place for respite, however brief, from the rich carnage of World War I? Especially if you’re a visitor from the Dark Side?

“Death Takes a Holiday,” the new musical by Maury Yeston at the Roundabout, opens with a car ride that begins in rapture.

A mash-up of horror story, rumination and comedy of manners, it’s based on a play that became the 1934 film starring Fredric March and, in 1998, “Meet Joe Black,” with Brad Pitt.

When that car crashes in the Italian countryside, a blithe, beautiful heiress Grazia (Jill Paice, as much a treasure here as she was in “The 39 Steps”) is thrown to her apparent end.

She returns somehow unscratched. The stunned party -- they have been celebrating Grazia’s engagement to Corrado (Max Von Essen) -- returns to the lakeside Villa Felicita, with the Alps looming in the distance.

Later that night a tall, very dark stranger appears. He confides to Grazia’s father, the Duke (Michael Siberry) that he is Death (Julian Ovenden, whose moving performance rivals that of Paulo Szot’s debut in “South Pacific”).

A chance encounter earlier that evening (guess what that was?) has led him to a detour from his appointed rounds. He will take human form as Russian prince Sirki and join them for the weekend in an attempt to understand why humans cling so tenaciously to life.

Falling in Love

What he really wants, of course, is the high-spirited Grazia, whose heart he wins, much to the consternation of both her father and her fiance.

Yeston, best known for two other film adaptations, “Nine” and “Titanic,” began work on the show with author Peter Stone, who met Death himself and was replaced by Thomas Meehan (“The Producers,” “Hairspray”), another fine craftsman.

They made several unimportant changes to the screenplay, which also has its odd inconsistencies of tone. Frankly, I didn’t mind, because Yeston’s songs are so beautifully made.

The beguiling, accessible numbers include magisterial ballads (Matt Cavenaugh is dreamy as a returning aviator singing of his lost comrade in “Roberto’s’ Eyes”), up-tempo toe-tappers (“Life’s a Joy”) and torchy weepers (Sirki’s “I Thought That I Could Live”).

This is one of the most beautifully written and sung scores I’ve heard in a long time, even if Yeston occasionally settles for the easy rhyme.

American Flapper

I can’t be as enthusiastic about Doug Hughes’s deathly staging. Still, there are lovely contributions from Mara Davi, as an uninhibited American flapper; Alexandra Socha as Grazia’s lonely best friend and, especially, Rebecca Luker, as Grazia’s mother.

Derek McLane’s setting, vibrantly lit by Kenneth Posner, is simple and elegant, as are Catherine Zuber’s period costumes. “Death” is a fine, if weird, romance.

Through Sept. 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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