Review: Death Takes a Holiday ★★★ – Magic realism in 1920s Italy makes for a haunting musical

Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.

Yeston and Peter Stone, who wrote the book for Titanic, next turned to Italian playwright Alberto Casella’s 1924 romance, Death Takes a Holiday, with its glamorous setting – an aristocrat’s villa on Lake Garda. This fanciful story has Death falling for Grazia, a beautiful newly-engaged young aristocrat so that he allows her to escape unscathed from a catastrophic car crash; and taking the guise of a handsome young Russian Prince to gatecrash her father’s weekend house party, courts her himself. In a programme note Yeston points to what’s behind Casella’s story – a preoccupation with death in the survivors of the Great War and the ensuing deadly influenza pandemic which between them claimed 60 million lives. So there’s a thematic link with Yeston’s earlier work. It’s a sad irony that Stone’s death in 2003 meant that Thomas Meehan had to take over.

The strange dreamlike chamber musical gets its dream production, thanks to director Thom Southerland’s fine cast and creative team and MD Dean Austin’s 10-piece band. Set designer Morgan Large belies his name, creating on a pocket-sized stage terraces and colonnades of an Italian lakeside villa as convincing as any in an Ivory/Merchant film. And Jonathan Lipman’s stunning take on period costumes complements perfectly, for Southerland cleverly makes his 14-strong cast part of the set, for example standing on chairs to suggest the doomed car.

There are uniformly elegant performances too. Chris Peluso’s Death and Zoë Doano’s Grazia look perfect in each other’s arms and have soaring voices to match the music Yeston gives them. Peluso is both appealingly ardent and as sinister as his real identity demands and Doano is so alive and fresh that you fear for her as she falls for him, even as she recognizes him.  Mark Inscoe commands as the Count, her worried father, and among his guests, Samuel Thomas stands out as Major Eric Fenton, closest friend of his son, Roberto, killed in the Great War, with one of the show’s best numbers, Roberto’s Eyes. Scarlett Courtney as Eric’s sister and Helen Turner as Roberto’s widow Alice are touching representatives of girls without husbands post-war. Gay Soper and Anthony Cable are touching and funny as the vintage couple rediscovering youthful vigour while Death has taken time out. There are though perhaps too many musical numbers and it’s just a shame that Yeston’s pot pourri of styles doesn’t quite make for a killer musical.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Death Takes a Holiday runs until Saturday 4 March, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only), £17.50-£39.50, at Charing Cross Theatre, WC2N 6NL. www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

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