The composer Maury Yeston is known in musical theatre for his lush, melodic orchestrated scores such as Titanic and Phantom. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the gorgeous score for Death Takes A Holiday, a show based, like the Brad Pitt film Meet Joe Black, on a 1924 Italian play by Alberto Casella. Yeston wrote the lyrics as well as the music; the book is by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan.
In North Italy after the First World War, Death saves a young woman, Grazia, from being killed when the car she is in crashes into a tree. Wearied after the carnage of the war, and curious to understand why humanity fears him so, Death resolves to take a break, appearing as a mortal man to spend the weekend with Grazia’s family. Inevitably, as far as the audience is concerned, Death falls in love with her, and she wants to go with him when he leaves, but when he returns to his immortal form, the only way for her to accompany him is to die.
It sounds horrendously sentimental, but I couldn’t help falling in love with it, embracing the gloriously overblown Gothicness of the whole thing. The lyrics and book have an unexpected bite, and there is a black humour underlying the piece which I hadn’t expected from a show like this.
When the casting was first announced, I was sorry not to be seeing Julian Ovenden, who originally played the role of Death on Broadway. I also thought as I was watching the show how good Ramin Karimloo would have been in it. Having said that, I was really impressed with Chris Peluso. He is entirely convincing as Death (an odd sort of compliment perhaps), with an unnerving stage presence and a brilliant voice. As Grazia, Zoe Doano is also superb. Another fantastic singer, she helps to make her character’s relationship with Death believable. Morgan Large’s set is Gothic and glorious, with pull-out colonnades that evoke the palace’s hidden spaces.
The show isn’t perfect: it’s overlong, some of the book is slightly clunky, and the female characters moon over Death (and men in general) in a way that my feminist radar does not particularly like. That said, I forget all of these things when I think about the glorious score. I honestly loved this show, and I might be tempted to make a repeat visit.