Saturday 21st January, 2017, matinée
Going to see ‘Death Takes A Holiday’ at the Charing Cross Theatre was an easy decision – we couldn’t miss the chance to add another Maury Yeston musical to our collection. Yeston is known for his liking of difficult subjects – he tackled Phantom of the Opera before Lloyd Webber, had a spectacular flop on Broadway with ‘Titanic’, only for the piece to be rediscovered and re-polished as a sparkling gem of musical theatre, and here he takes on ‘Death Takes a Holiday’, a light-hearted(!) romance about death falling in love with one of his ‘victims’, Grazia. She is thrown from a speeding car, but he cannot bear to carry off her soul. Instead he allows her to live, follows her home to her family villa and stays for the weekend in human form, the ‘holiday’ of the title. Needless to say, it gets complicated.
Despite the boldly philosophical premise, the action unfolds in naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion and it soon emerges that this is an exploration of what it means to be human and how mortality shapes us. Although Death has supernatural powers, we are constantly reminded that it is human beings who are responsible for vast swathes of human misery, whether the horrors of war (the action is set in the 1920s), suicide or a car crash caused by a reckless driver. Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan’s book keeps the action intimate and real within the surreal setting, and never loses the humanity of the story.
This is the perfect vehicle for Maury Yeston’s music, which takes us away from intellectual enquiry and on to an emotional journey. The beauty and unashamed romance of the music carries us through and mitigates the darkness and potential horror of the story. The score and lyrics are uplifting, sweeping and majestic, but also intimate and even comedic when they need to be. If the definition of musical theatre is drama where the characters are so emotionally overwhelmed that they can only sing their feelings, this is the perfect example. ‘Centuries’ sets the scene with Death being awakened from his grim torpor by the beauty of a young woman; ‘Alive’ portrays the excitement and wonder of taking human form for the first time, and ‘I Thought That I Could Live’ reveals the painful emotional education he has received. Interwoven with these are two stunning love duets, ‘Alone Here with You’ and ‘More and More’, and the painful stories of Grazia’s family are also told through some touching and dramatic solos about her brother (‘Roberto’s Eyes’ and ‘Losing Roberto’), and the haunting ‘December Time’.
Thom Southerland has kept the direction very simple, and made sure the music always comes first. Morgan Large’s beautiful sets evokes a fairytale atmosphere and transforms effortlessly from interior to exterior to keep the action moving.
Southerland has put together an excellent cast and in particular his leading man, Chris Peluso, delivers on all fronts. He is full of cocky charm and conveys a child-like innocence but never loses the dark intensity that underpins his motives. He has the vocal power to match, essential for those solos where he reveals the depths of his pain and longing, and his voice blends beautifully in the love duets. At this point we should note that Peluso will only be in the cast until the 11th February. It’s literally a case of catch him while you can – he must surely be a rising star and is a joy to watch. We saw Zoe Doano in ‘The Grand Tour‘ and at the time commented that she exuded charm and more than fulfilled the brief in that role ‘to be unfeasibly beautiful and lovable’ – a brief she fulfills here too. However, whilst we thought she was rather under-used in that piece, here she has something more substantial to work with, and it is doubly pleasing to see her get her teeth into the deeply troubled and mysterious character of Grazia, the woman who finally stops death in his tracks. Hers is a sophisticated and totally believable portrayal, and ultimately a heartbreaking one.
There are some great supporting characters, particularly James Gant’s nervous valet who has to keep the secret of the real identity of their ‘guest’. Samuel Thomas is impressive as the friend of the family who is haunted by the knowledge that he has seen this handsome young man somewhere before, a question he finally answers in the moving song ‘Roberto’s Eyes’. Grazia’s mother, played by Kathryn Akin, also has a touching solo about losing her son in the war ‘Losing Roberto’. And finally Gay Soper and Anthony Cable have some wonderful moments together as the elderly Doctor and the woman he has always secretly loved, if only she could remember who he was. In a poignant duet, ‘December Time’, they briefly feel death receding away and dare to dream of a future together, until order is restored all too quickly as Death goes back to work.
What we love about Maury Yeston is the scale of his work – the space might be small, but the music is grand.