Review - Death Takes A Holiday (Charing Cross Theatre)

The UK premiere of Death Takes A Holiday is the latest of Thom Southerland's offerings as artistic director of the Charing Cross Theatre. Set in Northern Italy in the summer of 1922, the story begins when the Grim Reaper spares a young woman's life, and decides to become human for one weekend in order to try and comprehend why people fear death.  

Chris Peluso and Zoë Doano in Death Takes A Holiday
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Just as epic scale was powerfully presented on a tiny stage in the acclaimed European premiere of Titanic the Musical which ran last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, Death Takes A Holiday feels grand and rather luxe. Elegant and sophisticated costumes by Jonathan Lipman, and glorious atmospheric lighting by Matt Daw, give the whole production an attractive Mediterranean glow. 

The production as a whole cannot be faulted. Aside from a couple of scenes where too many chairs makes the whole stage look cluttered, resulting in a few chairography heavy transitions, Death Takes A Holiday is as slick and polished as has come to be expected from production at the Charing Cross Theatre during under Thom Southerland's direction. 

It's just a shame that the story itself lacks a certain spark and, despite its exploration of poignant themes such as loss and heartbreak, feels rather trivial. The relationship between Death and Grazia, the young beautiful woman whose life he spares, feels rushed and somewhat unbelievable from the outset, as Death claims to save her life because of her overwhelming youth and vitality, thus suggesting that no other bright young things ever met an early demise before her. 

It also feels like there are too many superfluous characters, who seem interesting but don't make much difference to the outcome of the plot at all. For instance, pilot Eric Fenton, the best friend of Grazia's deceased brother, is introduced near the end of act 1, sings one of the most affecting songs in the show and then almost instantaneously becomes irrelevant again. 

Of course, the idea of Death deciding to become a human is an undeniably interesting premise, and the potential for some brilliant fish out of water comedy is not ignored, to begin with at least.  As Death parades around in his human guise, in the body of recently deceased Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki, his exploration of what it means to be human is rather enjoyable to behold. Especially as he waxes lyrical about eating eggs for breakfast, and discovers human lust after an encounter with a sensual housemaid. However, these lighter scenes feel very much at odds with the dark, voluptuous romance between Grazia and Death, and as such the latter character quickly starts to feel like a hybrid of Jack Skeleton and the Phantom of the Opera. 

Nevertheless, Chris Peluso is the perfect leading man for the role, with an imposing presence and a silky voice versatile enough to effortlessly tackle Maury Yeston's soaring score. Similarly, Zoë Doano's pure tone suits the youthfulness of Grazia, and it's lovely to see pluckiness in her portrayal of the young lover, despite the disadvantages that her age and gender afford her in the somewhat outdated story. 

Additionally, although it is not the strongest or most memorable of Maury Yeston's compositions, Death Takes A Holiday's sumptuous score is full of rich, goose bump inducing harmonies and contains plenty of light and shade, which is perfectly apt for a musical about life and death. 

It's a shame that a brilliantly atmospheric production with such a strong cast can still feel underwhelming, as on aesthetics alone Death Takes A Holiday cannot be faulted. Ironically and somewhat inexplicably the production just lacks a certain spirit. The performances are well worth a listen, and fans of chamber musicals will no doubt adore Maury Yeston's opulent oeuvre, but as a whole the show seems to be missing something, and ends rather abruptly, in a finale which lacks drama and emotion, despite a rousing accompanying score.