Pros: The singing — if you went just for that, it’d be worth it.
Cons: The show is too long and some of the lyrics are singularly dodgy.
It’s 1921 and, after a flu pandemic and four years of war, Death is pretty fed up with his — for lack of a better word — life. Intrigued as to why humans fear him so much, he decides to take the weekend off and spend it with the Lamberti family to study their ways. Under the guise of the Russian prince Nikolai Sirki, Death learns about life as he falls in love with the Lambertis’ daughter Grazia.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the similarities with Meet Joe Black, which was adapted from the same 1924 play by Alberto Casella, La Morte in Vacanza. The major difference between Death Takes a Holiday and its predecessors is that this incarnation is a musical! And I can assure you that that’s not as weird as it sounds. For starters (and in spite of the description) it’s a hopelessly romantic story, and it now comes with a suitably soaring score thanks to composer and lyricist Maury Yeston.
The singing is truly excellent across the board, although some of the lyrics are so clunky I’m not sure they need that level of projection or enunciation. For example, a particular cringe-worthy moment occurs when Grazia’s sister-in-law, Alice, is singing about her dead husband and opts to call him ‘Grazia’s brother’ rather than his actual name in order to get the correct amount of syllables for the line. There are some good acting performances as well: Chris Peluso is part dorky, part sinister as Death, while James Gant as butler Fidele provides some much-appreciated comic relief.
Still, the evening does drag a little. While the premise of the story has the potential to develop into either a profound look at the meaning of life or a good bit of absurdist fun, it tries to do a bit of both and therefore commits to neither. It certainly could be a lot snappier, and there’s not much to look at in terms of set either. Most of the action comes, in fact, from some largely pointless to-ing and fro-ing with chairs.
Death Takes a Holiday is definitely not without its faults, but it is something of a snowflake in the sometimes same-y genre of musical theatre. Yeston’s score has some proper Sondheim moments, and did I talk about the singing? It deserves another mention, it really was that good. It’s not going to be the cheeriest night you’ve had at the theatre, but that’s alright. I’ve always felt that we needed to contemplate the meaning of life, the universe and everything via musical theatre more often anyway.
Book: Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Thom Southerland
Box Office: 0844 4930 650
Booking Link: http://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/death-takes-a-holiday
Booking Until: 4 March 2017