Death Takes A Holiday is like a weekend European city break: nice, but nothing amazing. Perhaps somewhere with a bit more “va-va-voom” next time?
The grim reaper, upon going to collect the soul of a beautiful young Grazia, is stricken by not her beauty, but the zest for life she radiates. Death falters and instead of taking her, lets her live, but lives among her and her companions to understand why mortals hold life so dearly. But whilst death takes a holiday, he falls in love with Grazia. But could she ever love him back?
Old movies are great, right? I mean, they’d have to be to keep getting badly re-booted to remind everyone just how good they were in the first place. But there certainly is something to be said about certain film to stage conversions that, if they find a verve and pizzazz. Legally Blond: The Musical certainly found it. Xanadu is a brilliant success in turning a cult but abysmal film into a riot of a showstopper. Heck, even Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is loosely based on a Ingrid Bergman film. So with Maury Yeston, the composer behind smash-hit revivals/UK premiers of Titanic: The Musical and Grand Hotel teaming up once more with ‘The Phoenix Machine” duo of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland, who were behind said smash-hit revivals/UK premiers, I had very high hopes for Death Takes A Holiday.
However, Death Takes a Holiday ends up being theatrical purgatory: not terrible, but not exactly heaven-sent. For starters, Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone’s book can’t quite decide whether Death Takes A Holiday is a romantic drama, or a romantic comedy. There are moments of high-drama that at moments makes Death Takes A Holiday lofty, such as the quandary of what Death should do after he falls in love with Grazia, and the moment when Major Fenton meets death for the first time, going into a wild frenzy where he remembers seeing Death’s eyes before. But there are moments that keep jolting you out of the high drama for oddly pitched comedy. Namely, there’s a lot of terrible Christmas-cracker grade jokes, such as Major Fenton saying, “It’s as if I was looking straight at Death” (or something along those lines) whilst he’s, wait for it, looking straight at Death! That, and some lazy sex-jokes, and one dreary gay joke, that feel really dated rather than funny. There’s no subtly in the humour which undermines the intensity of the drama, making Death Takes A Holiday feel really awkward and uncertain of what it’s trying to be.
Then, certain aspects in the storyline don’t seem to come to any satisfying conclusion. Major Fenton’s misgivings about Death’s supposed identity, a Russian Prince, peters out without much of the shocking reveal that we were expecting, and the supposed “race with death” is abruptly finished before it even starts due to dodgy car mechanics despite a big point being made that “this is going to happen” (and a groaner of a pun about it being a “race with death”). The opening is also incredibly rushed in trying to get out as much exposition out the way as possible meaning it takes a while for Death Takes A Holiday to settle into something that is solid and enjoyable.
In short, any dramatic build that is there is constantly stunted by goofball comedy and devices that result in anticlimaxes. But when Death Takes A Holiday focuses on the growing romance between Death and Grazia, it’s actually quite compelling and are the moments that really stand out because these bits have all the drama and complexity that the rest of it lacks.
Music and Lyrics
This isn’t one of Maury Yeston’s best scores: although, that’s not to say it’s bad. The first problem is that several of the numbers really don’t work at all. The opening numbers of Act I feels rambling, rushed, and disorientated, where the opening of Act II is so pastiche you wonder whether Yeston is being sarcastic or not. There are also some lyrics that lack poetry and grandiose that make them stick out like a dead sunflower in a bunch of roses, and are completely not what you’d expect from Yeston or a musical with 11 Drama Desk nominations behind it.
But when Yeston does write a good song, he does so very well. There are several numbers in Death Takes A Holiday that are full of the epic sweeping melodies, luscious poetry, and high-drama. Two of Death and Grazia’s duets, “Alone Here With You” and “More and More”, are possibly the show’s best highlights. Even “Life’s a Joy” deserves a mention for being a dizzyingly frivolous number that crops up unexpectedly and raises a real smile. But even then, there’s nothing that really leaps off the stage at you, like several moments in Titanic: The Musical and Grand Hotel. Sweeping, yes. Grandiose, certainly. But nothing so outrightly exemplary.
Direction and Production
Of course, The Phoenix Machine’s production is certainly something that can’t be sniffed at. Morgan Large’s set design is ingenious and innovate, using walls that hinge in and out so that the stage goes from cosy corner room to ostentatious Italian villa galleria, with little effort. When everything is “folded” back in, it gives a wonderful sense of empty desolation which really augment some of Death Takes A Holiday’s thrilling moments. Matt Daw’s lighting design is also superlative. Playing with a lot of blues to create a chilling coolness of a mausoleum to juxtaposing it with the warmth of a bright soft wash to create an Italian summer that: it really plays to the book’s subtexts quite subversively. Then, there’s some outstanding work with shafts of light, adding a real sense of ornamentation to Large’s flat-pack instavilla, and most notably with back spot-lighting, making Death appear as if a shadow in several of the scenes which add a real menace and darkness.
Southerland, as always, ensures that the pace is pushed to ensure it never drags, something which is a signature trait of his, especially in the physical movement of the show: it’s always going somewhere and is never static. But interestingly here, whilst he’s always worked incredibly well with height in previous productions with multi-tiered sets, he really demonstrates that he has just a bold a fortissimo for working with empty space, using the vastness afford by Large’s set design to create visually dramatic sequences. It’s these scenes that are certainly real feasts for the eyes and are worth seeing Death Takes A Holiday for in itself.
Stealing the show are Chris Peluso as Death, and Zoe Doano, giving two of Theatreland’s most blinding current performances. Peluso is both sexy and intimidating as Death, and commands an incredibly dominant presence in both stature and aura. He’s cold, but enticing and alluring throughout, and the glimpses of something warm growing beneath his morbid veneer, with regards to his feelings towards Grazia, is something utterly charming to watch. Not to mention, Peluso has a voice that could raise the dead and completely storms his numbers. It’s a voice with power and intense reverence that you’d expect if the Grim Reaper had done three years at Rada rather than spent a weekend at an Italian villa.
Doano is pretty much the polar opposite of Peluso, commanding the stage with a grace, vivacity, and charm that is so sweet and beguiling she’s the one character at the end of Death Takes A Holiday that you really don’t want to die! It’s not difficult to see why Death falls for Grazia with Duano behind the performance, because she’s so effortlessly lovely that you’ve fallen in love with her a little yourself. Vocally, she meets Peluso’s strength, volume, and majesty but has a soothing softness that, even the big belter moments of Death Takes A Holiday, still stays velvety when sung in her dulcet tones.
As a pair, there’s a wonderfully enigmatic chemistry between Peluso and Doano. It’s fractious, intense, and whirlwind, and you can’t helped but be swept up in it. Death and Grazia are the two characters you end up caring about most because, not only are they the ones written with the most depth and detail, Peluso and Doano are just so good at playing on these complexities that they’re always captivating the watch together.
Book a break with Death Takes A Holiday if you’re able to. But just make sure you have something a little bigger lined-up for afterwards.
Death Takes A Holiday runs at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL. until 4 March 2017. Tickets are from £17.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.