Death Takes a Holiday tells a story that has fascinated adapters ever since the original Italian play by Alberto Casella debuted in 1924. Little wonder when you know the premise:
The dashingly handsome spectre of Death (Kevin Earley) appears to a middle-aged nobleman (Michael Siberry) and announces that he will take on the guise of a Russian Prince and be a guest in the nobleman’s villa. Death, you see, has declined to take the nobleman’s daughter (Jill Paice) after what should have been a fatal accident, having seen something in her that makes him fall in love. And now, for a weekend, he wants to experience life, to understand why humans cling to it so tenaciously.
You can remove details of place, era, nationality, class system and the story would still survive as a supernatural tale, with its romance and philosophical grounding intact. A number of adapters have indeed relocated the story, updated the when and the sensibility; but the version at the Laura Pels, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, the first musical adaptation, hews fairly close to the particulars of the original play—said play, in its tame, almost drawing room, treatment of matters supernatural being quaint and fragile, a cross between a philosophical comedy of manners and a romantic fantasy. Which means that the musical has to find its strength in the charm of the antiquated storytelling, without falling prey to its obsolescence—and the visceral passion of its central love story.
The musical, alas, exploits neither to full advantage. The show looks terrific, it has a fine cast, and under the direction of Doug Hughes they often perform charmingly (despite having few charming things to perform; they’re very agreeable company). But those assets are constrained and muted. For aside from the dramaturgy and musicalization never quite finding a way to exploit the source material, they also fall short of solving a central adaptive challenge—one that plagues musicalization of romantic stories in general:
Romances are soft.
Most of the great love stories in musical theatre are sidebars to, or by-products of, the main story, which is some kind of quest to achieve something. (Or in the case of a show like West Side Story, the love story itself is the quest, as it struggles to survive in a violent universe opposed to it.) But when the love story is front and center as primary point, there’s not much to do except wade in the mood pool, as the lovers go through angsty transitions and deny, then embrace, then recant, then accept their yearnings—and get together or not, depending upon whether the ultimate cause is nobility that must sacrifice for a greater good, or taking that one big transcendent leap of the soul. Because so much about romance storytelling is internal, romances require the most meticulous, subtle and ingenious narrative adjustments, if they’re to be transformed into onstage musicals, because all that squidgy stuff needs to be somehow reframed in active, external terms.
The adapters here, both extremely talented men, composer-lyricist Maury Yeston and librettist Thomas Meehan (taking up the torch of a libretto begun by the late, co-author-credited Peter Stone) have taken an almost prosaic, no-frills style approach that seems less symbiotically collaborative than respectfully deferential; as if the co-authors made room for each other’s specialties without rigorous, in-depth examination of their mutual purpose. The book takes the story through its paces in an almost perfunctory manner—the introduction of Death, for example, and his subsequent materialization to the household patriarch, are bewilderingly unmagical moments—and leads us into songs, almost all of which expound upon things we already know. Which brings up the other trick one must constantly pull off with “soft” material:
You have to engineer revelation—whether it relates to plot, character turning point or any kind of discovery—so that it happens within song; that way exploitable emotion and music dovetail. When those things are separated, when revelation anticipates song, even by a few seconds, song loses urgency. It may not always become dull, but it will perforce at its best only be able to mark time beautifully; and it will never have the ability to move you, because it doesn’t uniquely house the event of the scene, the catharsis of the moment. (There also seems to be a confusion of tone in this musical; it doesn’t conflate romantic fantasy with comedy of manners as the source play does, but seems to split the sub-genres further apart from each other, sometimes reaching for sincere passion, sometimes parodying something scary in the house stories, with the posing archness of lesser Lerner.)
There are other subtle problems as well. There has always been a disparity between Mr. Yeston’s music and lyrics, the words several kliks less accomplished and graceful than the melodies and arrangements; but usually at least a unity of purpose, a match of tone, saves the day. In Death Takes a Holiday, however, the gap is wider than ever. The music is often rapturous—also mischievous, catchy, bouncy and tasty, richly and fully developed—but the lyric craft is haphazard (strained and labored rhymes, patter that’s too “fat” to be articulated cleanly, oddly stiff locutions, etc.). Still…the craft shortfalls aren’t the primary problem; and if they were the only problem, you could shrug them off, however grudgingly. The central problem is that the lyricist simply isn’t connecting to his characters on a visceral level; the lyrics spend an awful lot of time describing states of emotional being without actually evoking them, as if they’re rhymed aids to psychological profiling. Only one early Act Two number, in which a mother mourns the loss of her son, truly lands in the manner of Best Yeston, because it’s the only one in which the language is simple and human and real, borne of the songwriter’s authentic identification with parenthood. (It also doesn’t hurt that the song is sensitively sung by the wonderful Rebecca Luker, but, again, the number gives her a lot to be sensitive about.)
short, the show has been comprehensively written, but hasn’t truly been realized, adapted but not transformed. It’s as if, along with Death, Birth (and reason
for being) has likewise taken time off…
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