In my experience, there seems to be a general perception that Off West End theatre can’t match up to its West End counterpart. For my part I’m trying to see more Off West End productions, but it can be difficult to fit their shorter runs into my theatregoing schedule what with travel expenses from home and still being an unemployed twenty -something, along with the fact my wheelchair excludes me from accessing some of the city’s older buildings. I’m taking strides to change this though, and my favourite venue that allows me to do so is Charing Cross Theatre. My first musical there was Ragtime which I was lucky enough by chance to see twice. I adored the production so much that I quickly arranged to see another musical in their season: Maury Yeston’s Death Takes a Holiday. Originally premiering off Broadway in 2011, this production marks the musical’s European debut. The musical, with a book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone is adapted from the 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, which was in turn made into a 1934 film starring Fredric March, and later remade into the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. The latter is one of my favourite films of all time, so I was intrigued to see where the story really began, and above all being only vaguely familiar with Maury Yeston’s scores, how it was set to music.
It’s an evening in Venice just after World War One, and the family of Duke Vittorio Lamberti are returning to their villa after celebrating the engagement of their daughter Grazia to Corado Montelli. When a mysterious figure blocks the road, Grazia is thrown from the car but is miraculously unharmed. In that instant, she knows that her life has changed dramatically. Death, entranced by Grazia’s beauty and spirit, and disillusioned with his purpose, takes human form in a Russian prince, Nikolai Sirki and endeavours discover why humans fear death so and understand human emotion. He visits the Duke, and blackmails him into letting him stay at the villa for the weekend. Thus begins a journey about life, what it means to be human and the question of whether love can transcend death.
The first thing that struck me about the production was how beautifully designed it is by Morgan Large. It features a set of large walled arches that are moved to signify a change in location, and I felt these immediately give a sense of grandeur to the intimate stage space, complimented stunningly by Johnathan Lipman’s sumptuous costumes. Matt Daw’s lighting is wonderfully atmospheric generally, even if the haze gets a little overwhelming at times; and the production overall is a lovely balance between a brave and ambitious vision of an unusual love story, with a kind of calm yearning signified by Yeston’s luscious sweeping melodies. What I found most exciting about the score is the ease by which he brings together light and dark, often simultaneously within one song, that touched me deeply and something about his work feels very raw and truthful.
Bringing life to a story about Death is a strong cast all round, led by Chris Peluso as Death and Zoe Doano as Grazia. I bought my ticket prior to casting being announced, which if this production has taught me anything, I should be brave enough to do more often. My first experience of seeing Chris Peluso perform came with recent London revival of Miss Saigon, an experience which for me was totally marred by the staging and my view from the wheelchair spaces in the Prince Edward. I’d so been looking forward to hearing Chris singing Why God Why, but the staging meant he was sitting out of my sight for the entire duration of doing so, and trying to lean over for the majority of the action between Kim and Chris resulted in me ending the night with a very sore neck and back, and feeling disappointed at being unable to connect with the story emotionally due to the fact our view was such as it was. This in mind, I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Chris performing again, and he charmed me utterly as Death. He brought an intensity to the role that was so entrancing that I often found my eye drawn to him whilst he was simply watching other characters, and wondering what Death was thinking in those moments. He contrasted this with moments of wonderfully endearing, almost childlike enthusiasm in the way Death first encounter’s his new found freedom in Alive! His smile during the latter was infectious and I found myself wrapped up utterly in the simple joy he finds in everyday things. Not to mention his singing, which was glorious throughout and Chris made the most of every single moment of the handful of times Death actually sings. His Act II solo number, I Thought That I Could Live was a highlight and gave me wonderful chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.
Chris is joined by Zoe Doano, who is nothing short of pure radiance as Grazia. This production marks the third I have seen Zoe in, and I was simply delighted to hear her beautiful soaring soprano once more, a perfect fit for a score like this. She is spirited and feisty, and I loved watching Zoe play this as it was a change from the kind of characters I have seen her play in the past. Her chemistry with Chris is one of the strongest I have had the joy of watching between a leading couple recently, I loved watching them interact because I believed everything from the moment they first set eyes on each other and their voices complimented each other beautifully.
Other special mentions must go to James Gant as Fidele, the family butler whose razor sharp comic timing was a joy to watch, I think at times I found the humour in the piece a little cheesy and obvious, but James made me embrace it and forget my misgivings. Since I saw the show, James has taken over as Prince Sirki/Death and I will forever regret not being able to arrange another visit to see his portrayal. He has a wonderful rich voice that I’ve no doubt also compliments Zoe’s, but knowing James as I do for more comedic roles, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see him play something more serious and romantic!
Anthony Cable and Gay Soper share some lovely tender moments as Baron Dario Albione and Countess Evangelina, and Mark Inscoe a face I shall watch out for in future after seeing him as Duke Vittorio. On a more personal note, I was chuffed to see my friend Trudi Camilleri up on stage again as Cora having witnessed her impromptu triumph of a debut as Mother in Ragtime here and I look forward to seeing where her whirlwind of a journey continues to lead.
It’s the cast that really hold an unusual story like this together, and coupled with the ten piece band led superbly by musical director Dean Austin, the whole effect was truly spellbinding and I’m so grateful I got to see it.