Death has never sounded so good. No really. There’s literally the character Death, the grim reaper if you will, belting out ballad after ballad on stage in Circle Theatre’s new production Death Takes a Holiday at Stage 773. Overall the talented cast does its best. All they really needs is, dare I say, more “lively” material.
Death Takes a Holiday is based on a 1924 Italian play by Alberto Casella that was later adapted for Broadway in 1929. That play was then re-worked into a 1934 film of the same name. A few decades later it was updated into 1998’s Meet Joe Black starring Brad Pitt.
The story takes place in an Italian village a few years after the end of World War 1. Death (Nate Lewellyn) has grown tired and weary of his job and decides to take on the human form of the handsome Prince Nikolai Sirki for a weekend to understand what human emotion is really like. Of course in the process he ends up falling in love with an engaged young woman, Grazio Lamberti (Laura McClain). This only complicates things further as Death’s weekend holiday draws to a close.
It’s a very interesting concept for a musical. The story brings up issues dealing with loss, sacrifice, mortality and fate. But at the same time it is also about life, love, and the complexities of conflicting emotions that come with that. These are universal and timeless truths. So in theory this should make for an amazing musical. After all, if someone is trying to comprehend human emotion then there’s no better place to look for it than in music. Music is the language of the soul. And musicals in particular are able to bring out the inner sub-conscious thoughts and intensity of emotion in ways that mere words cannot adequately express. So on paper at least this should all work; however, the big problem with Death Takes a Holiday is that technically this really isn’t a musical. This is an operetta.
Rather than having the characters really struggle with the ambivalence of conflicting deep psychological and emotional desires, we are instead directly “narrated” to by the cast. It’s frustrating and frankly disappointing to watch what should be a brilliant musical, be turned instead into a, pardon the pun, gravely lackluster operetta. By having it set in an operetta style, as opposed to a musical, makes the whole production seem rather constrained. This opera style also slows everything down. For a show that is quite literally about life and death the stakes are strangely low. When they are raised in Act 2, it feels as though that conflict comes out of nowhere and by that point we have stopped caring for the characters. They weren’t developed properly in the first Act so there’s no reason for us to be truly invested in them.
The most under-developed character is our main ingénue Grazia Lamberti. While sung beautifully and acted well by Laura McClain, the character is written so blankly that it would be hard for any actress to give it much color. We don’t know much about her, so when she makes her life-or-death decision at the end of Act 2, we still don’t care. After her brush with death at the beginning, she gets lost in a fog of other actors for a good portion of the first act. And despite her song “Who Is This Man?” regarding her questioning Prince Sirki, I’m still not sure exactly why she fell so irresistibly in love with him so quickly. She’d rather die and live with Death in eternity than live without him in the real world. But wait a minute… Hasn’t she only known this guy for less than 2 days? Would she really do this to her parents who are still grieving over the loss of her brother’s death? And wasn’t she engaged a day and a half ago? The questions are endless. None of it adds up primarily because she was never fleshed out properly.
Maury Yeston who wrote the music and lyrics for the show is a great composer. In this show the music ranges from plush romantic heights to a jazzy homage of the 1920s. But while his music is great, Yeston’s lyrics on the other hand remind me of something out of a songwriting 101 class. Instead of the intricate lyrical qualities that the story deserves we get simple rhymes such as: “Famines, earthquakes how they cost me! War and illness, they exhaust me!” or “My first morning, I slept great. My first breakfast is on that plate." Yes, they are that bad. Even worse are that many of the lyrics don’t fit the characters correctly. Even the first line of the show sung by Grazia, which gets repeated many times later, is out of place: “In the middle of your life anything can happen” she sings. Middle of your life? Isn’t Grazia supposed to be in her early 20s? And what does that line even mean? It makes no sense other than to give Yeston a chance to mirror that thought in the next line regarding something being in the middle of the road.
Apparently half-way through the creation and development process, book writer Peter Stone died leaving the unfinished work to be completed by his successor Thomas Meehan. So it’s understandable that the writing would be different. Scenes would have to be re-worked, words edited, tiny idiosyncrasies changed to have it written by a new voice with a different approach. But in hindsight it might’ve just been better to perhaps scrap the whole thing and start from page 1. While Maury Yeston seemed to think this was a melodrama, Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan have written much of the book scenes as a (badly-written) comedy. It all seems so strained. Act 1 specifically is a mess. It is so pieced together in ways that many moments get repeated. For example, the opening scene deals with a car crash that throws Grazia out of the car. She should’ve died but is able to get up and move without a scratch on her. We see this, and she sings about it. Then the cast sings about the exact same thing. Then again later in the show they sing about it. We get it!
And if that’s not enough we’re given entire songs that repeat stuff we already know. “Death Is In the House” sung by Grazia’s father Duke Lamberti (Kevin M. Grubb) with his butler Fidele (Royen Kent) is an absolutely pointless rehashing of Act 1’s most basic plot point. It’s the same thing with the Act 2 opener “Somethings Happened” a totally unnecessary song repeating the obvious changes that took place in Act 1 when Death went on its holiday.
The problems with the script are magnified by the fact that there’s no real movement in the show. There are too many slow motion moves, too many freezes in place and a lot of standing around delivering over-described recitative directly to the audience. I appreciate that there are no major set pieces, hardly any props, or many costumes for the actors to deal with, but unfortunately when a show is stripped down to its essentials like this is all it does is expose the material’s flaws more clearly.
The saving grace of Death Takes a Holiday is its incredible cast. This is a show where almost every character gets their chance to shine. Nate Lewellyn as Death and Prince Sirki is a fetching actor and thrilling singer especially in his angst-riddled Act 2 number “I Thought That I Could Live”. Khaki Pixley who plays Roberto’s widow, Alice, gives us one of the truly lighter moments in the show with a lively Charleston number that has her literally dancing and flirting with death. “December Time” sung by the family doctor Dario (Rus Rainear) and Grazia’s widowed grandmother Evangelina (Rosalind Hurwitz) is a charming lovely duet by two terrific older actors. It’s a really lovely song but its location late in the Second Act makes it seem weirdly out of place. Similarly, earlier in Act 2, we get an adorable duet between the Aviator’s little sister Daisy (Andrea DeCamp) and Grazias fiancé Corrado (Steve Greist), but it was too awkwardly forced into the script. One of the better songs in Act 2 that actually fell perfectly in place is the lovely trio “Finally to Know” sung beautifully by Grazia, Alice, and Daisy.
Royen Kent has great comic intentions as the Lamberti’s butler. The role as its written easily borders on annoying and intrusive, but Kent plays it with such charm that you can’t help but like the character. And even without many lines or songs the 3 other members of the house staff (Erin Daly, Tommy Bullington, and Stephanie Souza) stood out. Erin Daly as Cora the maid in particular is a pure delight to watch how she lights up the stage with the little she’s given. Stephanie is the perfect seductress sexy maid. And Tommy is a joy to watch.
Interestingly the two best musical numbers in the show “Roberto’s Eyes” and “Losing Roberto” involve a character who is never seen on stage. Roberto is the Lamberti’s son and Grazia’s brother. His passing in the war is what teaches Death/Sirki about the true suffering surrounding human death. “Roberto’s Eyes” is sung by the aviator Eric (Ryan Gaffney) who has one of the toughest dramatic ballads in the show. Gaffney sends the song soaring vocally into the rafters. “Losing Roberto” sung by the Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Denise Tamburrino) is by far the most touching and moving moment of the entire night. Denise Tamburrino’s interpretation of it is absolutely breathtaking and the highlight of the show.
Bottom Line: Death Takes a Holiday is Somewhat Recommended. Despite the major problems with story and book, the talent here is really good. Denise Tamburrino’s moving interpretation of “Losing Roberto” is worth the price of admission in and of itself. More than anything else I have to applaud the fact that Circle Theatre is taking risks. This is not a well-known show and therefore not a big audience-draw for Circle’s premiere musical in the city. The fact that they decided on Death Takes a Holiday rather than pandering to a well-known over-produced commodity is proof of that. Any theatre company that is willing to take risks like that is worth seeing. You may have turn off the critical part of your brain and just enjoy it for what it is.
Running Time: 2 Hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission
This Circle Theatre production is being performed at: Stage 773: 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60057
Runs through: May 26th
Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM
Box Office: 773-327-5252
All seats: $32 for adults, $30 for students/seniors; Group rates are available
Directed by Elizabeth Margolius, Music Direction by Jon Landvick, Choreography by Kristen Gurbach-Jacobson, Scenic Design by Peter O’Neill, Costume Design by Patti Roeder, Lighting Design by Julian Pike
Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston, Book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan
Cast includes: Tommy Bullington, Erin Daly, Andrea DeCamp, Ryan Gaffney, Steve Greist, Kevin Grubb, Rosalind Hurwitz, Royen Kent, Nate Lewellyn, Laura McClain, Kahaki Pixley, Rus Rainear, Stephanie Souza, and Denise Tamburrino