First there was Alberto Casella’s original play about Death taking a break from his job for a long weekend spent among mortals at a lakeside Italian villa in 1921. Then Hollywood picked up the story, in a 1934 film starring Fredric March and, more recently, in a 1998 Americanized retelling called Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company is presenting a musical version of the story, Death Takes a Holiday, with music by Tony-winning composer Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine).
As the Grim Reaper who poses as a Russian prince to learn about humanity firsthand, Julian Ovenden is no Brad Pitt. But he strikes a stolid pose, sings well, and looks good in formal wear. (The gorgeous period costumes are by Catherine Zuber.) Alas, there’s not much onstage spark with the pretty young blonde whose life he has spared, Grazia Lamberti (a somewhat bland Jill Paice). And despite his crashing at the lush Lamberti villa when it seems to be jam-packed with guests, there really isn’t enough plot to sustain a full-length two-act musical. Call it Slight in the Piazza.
Happily, things pick up in the second act, when the mechanics of pairing off the various singleton characters grind into place with more alacrity. Yeston delivers one of his better scores, studded with pretty chamber pieces that make up for old-fashioned craft what they may lack in outright catchiness. Yeston may be the best composer of choral numbers working in theater today — witness the stunningly crafted trio ”Finally to Know,” sung by Grazia, her friend Daisy (an overacting Alexandra Socha), and her sister-in-law Alice (a fine Mara Davi). Lyric-writing, however, is not his strong suit, and there are some doozies here: ”Believe me, I don’t want to hurt a fly,” Death sings in his opening number. ”All I wish to know is: What is life? I swear I could not speak a lie.”
The talented supporting cast has its moments in the spotlight, from Broadway vet Rebecca Luker as Grazia’s mother to Don Stephenson as the villa’s comic majordomo to Matt Cavenaugh as a visiting military pilot who earns a laugh for a very quick change into a tux. But there’s something enervating about the couple at the center of the story, and director Doug Hughes, who is better known for his work on plays rather than musicals, does little to enliven the proceedings. A visit from Death ought to be more fun. B?
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)