Eye on Theatre: Not So Grim Reaper By JOHN SIMON

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Simon_John-pencil drawing SIMON_DeathTakesAHoliday-poster <<< Death Takes a Holiday poster.Photography and idea by Geof Kern;
Creative Direction by Drew Hodges, Vinny Sainato

in 1934, when the Hollywood movie Death Takes a Holiday opened, the New York Times critic, Mordaunt Hall (a playwright himself), called it “a really intelligent fantasy.” It was based on a 1928 Italian play by Alberto Casella (not known for anything else), and was successful despite the word “death” in its title, supposed to be anathema at the box office. That it wasn’t in this case was due, Hall speculated, to the close proximity of “holiday.”

The new musical on the same material still has both words in its title, and the words will have to battle it out once again. Never mind the title, though; what really matters are the music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, and the book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone; the latter, alas, victim of death not having taken a holiday.

SIMON_deathholiday1<<<Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Max von Essen, Alexandra Socha, Rebecca Luker, Michael Siberry, Patricia Noonan, Simon Jones and Linda Balgord

The story of the musical concerns Death’s capricious decision to spend a weekend in mufti among mortals, to find out why they are all so afraid of him, and what life and love and hope are all about and why so precious. He comes to the North Italian lakeside villa of Duke Vittorio and Duchess Stephanie Lamberti, where he falls into amply reciprocated love with their daughter Grazia.. He arrives as the dashing Russian Count Nikolai Sirki (only the Duke is supposed to know who he really is, though in this version two others do too), which elicits almost more comedy than drama and provides us with a couple of hours of pleasant albeit not quite transcendent entertainment.

One problem may be that the show was almost more rewritten than written.  Casella’s play was rewritten for the American stage by Walter Ferris, then rewritten for the American screen by a team of two, one of whom was Maxwell Anderson, and now reworked by Peter Stone and, upon his death, further by Thomas Meehan.  The movie contains a good deal of Andersonian poeticizing.

The musical’s book is happily free from most of that, and also fairly different, which is both for the good and, at times, not so good. We get, for example, a subplot  in which Grazia had a brother, Roberto, who died in the Great War and whose army buddy Sirki claims to have been. (A Russian prince in the Italian army?) It also introduces an American, doughty Major Eric Fenton, truly Roberto’s buddy (what is this, the International Brigade?), who disputes the claim of the Prince and finds looking into his eyes deeply disturbing.

There were in the movie two other young women chez Lamberti, friends of Grazia’s, who fell for the Prince. In the musical, they are the American Alice Lamberti, Roberto’s fairly merry widow, and Eric’s teen-aged sister, Daisy, played rather insufferably by Alexandra Socha. Her crush on Sirki adds subplot, as does the creation of a jolly Doctor Dario Albione, permanent house guest of the Lambertis and long-time unrequited (until late in Act Two) suitor of Grazia’s grandma, Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli, another permanent resident. Incidentally, the occasionally dropped Italian word, like “Contessa,” is supposed to add authenticity.

The complicated plotting—and I haven’t even mentioned the butler Fidele, whom the musical turns into a crass comic figure, specially so in Don Stephenson’s performance—has, I repeat, positive and negative aspects. Another innovation is not turning Death at any time into a sinister, black-hooded figure, but letting it be throughout the good-looking leading man, Britain’s Julian Ovenden, a splendid baritone but somewhat less compelling actor.

Neither Ovenden nor the attractive Jill Paice, who though accomplished is a bit too tall for him, fully conveys love at first sight, chemistry that can mitigate a certain lack in the writing, There are also further inconsistencies in the plot that perhaps can, in a fantasy, be overlooked.

What counts most, of course, is the score. Musically, it is consistently good enough, although only intermittently and fleetingly memorable. The lyrics, in fact, slightly lag behind the tunes which, if not up to Yeston’s Nine, can compete with those of his Grand Hotel and Titanic.

Visually, the show consists of a unit set by one of today’s best designers, Derek McLane, which, though elegant, is somewhat hampered by having to stand in for too many outdoor and indoor locations.  Metallic spiral staircases at extreme right and left, however, do make impressive contributions. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are opulently period, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting almost makes up for the absence of a visible lake. The fine director, Doug Hughes, in his first go at a musical, comes through respectably. 

There is first-class work from most of the star-studded supporting cast, notably Michael Siberry (Duke), Rebecca Luker (Duchess), Matt Cavenaugh (Eric), Mara Linn (Alice), Linda Balgord (Contessa), and Simon Jones (Albione). Peter Pucci’s dances meet the modest choreographic demands of what is after all a chamber musical.

Casella’s play, written soon enough after World War One, in which Italy incurred so many casualties, was partly meant to reconcile people to early death. The musical might have played more effectively here too during the Vietnam War. Even now, though, it is at least superior to much of its competition.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Not So Grim Reaper By JOHN SIMON

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