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London Theatre Reviews

Chris Peluso and Zoe Doano/ Ph: Scott Rylander

A DANCE WITH THE LIVING

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

An excellent score cannot save a messy book.

Maury Yeston, best known for his scores of Grand Hotel, Nine and Titanic, is quite rightly regarded by aficionados of the Broadway musical as one of the best in the business. His musicianship and ability to create melodies that get better with age give his work a distinction few of his contemporaries can claim. In Death Takes a Holiday, first seen in New York in 2011, he offers an almost non-stop outpouring of show songs that soar, beguile and, when required, retain a sense of humour. He is a songwriter-lyricist for all seasons and reasons, with deep emotional resources that embrace an impressively broad spectrum of situations.
 
However, what he desperately needs on this occasion is a book writer capable of giving his score a workable and convincing context. On paper, it would appear that he has been offered a pair of librettists who almost certainly could be relied on to get the job done. Thomas Meehan wrote the books for such smash hits as Annie, The Producers and Hairspray, while Peter Stone’s credits include Woman of the Year and 1776. Unfortunately they’ve let him down badly.
 
Based on an Italian play of the mid-1920s by Alberto Casella, which was adapted for Broadway in 1929 by Walter Ferris and in 1998 was reshaped out of all recognition as a tortuous film vehicle for Brad Pitt called Meet Joe Black, Death Takes a Holiday tells the whimsical story of the grim reaper, who, posing as Prince Nikolai Sirki (Chris Peluso), decides to take a weekend sabbatical from his deathly chores by inviting himself as a house guest to a hillside villa outside Venice owned by Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Mark Inscoe).
 
That night the Duke’s beautiful daughter Grazia (Zoe Doane) is miraculously saved after being flung from a speeding car driven by her fiance Corrado (Ashley Stillburn). It is Death of course who, smitten by her appearance and charm, decides to spare her life. In doing so he breaks a golden rule by falling hopelessly In love with her – and she with him. That very same evening she ends her engagement to Corrido and agrees to run away with her mysterious Prince – a liaison that will end in her death.
 
And that, dear reader, is the plot that Meehan and Stone have been asked to flesh out for just over two hours. There are a couple of mini sub-plots. Grazia’s sister Alice (Helen Turner), whose husband Roberto was killed in the Great War, has set her sights on the rejected Corrido, and a certain Daisy Fenton (Scarlett Courtney) is determined to woo Major Eric Fenton (Samuel Thomas), the brother of Roberto’s best pal. Who cares?
 
Unfortunately, a good score alone is not enough to kick-start a show that’s locked into a single idea and goes nowhere whenever the music stops. For Meehan and Stone, the characters, almost without exception, never rise above the stereotypical. Death Takes a Holiday commits the cardinal sin of not really providing audiences with anyone to root for or care about.
 
This is not the fault of the cast – especially not Doane and Peluso, who sing their hearts out, bringing passion and commitment to Yeston’s first-rate score. The supporting cast works hard to breathe life into basically stillborn roles, and not even the excellent Tom Southerland, who has done some really good work at this venue, nor his designer Morgan Large, have been able to find a way to animate a moribund text.
 
No complaints about the 12 members who comprise the band, or their conductor Dean Austin. Musically the show delivers in spades. Dramatically it just lies there.