A gorgeous if derivative score and creaky book did not add up to off-Broadway smash status (or a Broadway transfer) for 2011’s Death Takes A Holiday, but with a cast chock-full of L.A. musical theater stars and director Calvin Remsberg providing expert guidance, Musical Theatre Guild’s first concert staged reading of 2014 garnered a deserved standing ovation this past Sunday at Santa Monica’s spiffy new Moss Theatre.

IMG_0184 “Fusty” was how the New York Times critic described Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan’s book, whose roots go all the way back to a 1924 Italian play, and which often feels every one of the original’s ninety years of age.

Set in those same 1920s and in that same Italy (Venice to be more specific) of the original La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, Death Takes A Holiday’s musical adaptation begins with a high speed drive along a windy hilltop road, one which ought by rights to have led to the death of lovely young Grazia Lamberti (Ashley Fox Linton), thrown from the car driven by her handsome fiancé Corrado Montelli (Will Collyer).

DSC_0827 Miraculously, Grazia escapes unscathed, though we in the audience are in on the secret of said “miracle,” that Death itself has apparently taken a liking to the fair signorina, such a liking that it assumes human form and pays a weekend visit to Casa Lamberti in the guise of Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki (Dan Callaway), the better to find out just what all the fuss is about being alive. Only Grazia’s father Duke Vittorio (Joe Hart) and eavesdropping servant Fidele (Todd Nielsen) are privy to the Duke’s real identity. (If this sounds a tad familiar, Brad Pitts’ 1998 film Meet Joe Black was based on the same source material.)

Over the course of Death’s weekend holiday, various love stories get played out, not surprisingly the most significant of which is that of the heavily accented “Prince Nikolai” and blonde and beautiful Grazia, but which also includes the pairings of heartsick Corrado and young widow Alice (Misty Cotton), and late-in-life lovers Dr. Dario Albione (Doug Carfrae) and Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (Helen Geller).

IMG_0196 Completing the cast of principals are bubble-headed Daisy Fenton (Melissa Fahn), Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Teri Bibb) and Major Eric Fenton (Erik McEwan), the latter two of whom are in mourning for downed WWI pilot Roberto (her son and his best friend), and servants Cora (Pamela Hamill), Lorenzo (Sam Zeller), and Sophia (Melissa Lyons Caldretti) helping majordomo Fidele keep everything in order.

As might be surmised, keeping Prince Nicolai’s true identity a secret is easier said than done, and before long it’s not merely Vittorio and Fidele who know that “Death Is In The House,” though you can probably guess who will be the last to learn the truth.

IMG_0094 Composer Yeston, best known for Nine, Titanic, and his “additional music/lyrics” for Grand Hotel, began work on Death Takes A Holiday around the time of Titanic’s 1997 Broadway run, which may be why much of Death Takes A Holiday’s score sounds awfully like Titanic’s with some of the notes changed. In other words, the songs are gorgeous, but not nearly as original sounding as you’d expect from a brand new score.

Still, one can hardly deny the beauty of Grazia’s “In The Middle Of Your Life” and “How Will I Know?” or Death/Nicolai’s “Why Do all Men?” and “Alive!” or their voices blended in “More And More,” particularly when those voices belong to Callaway and Linton, among our finest leading players.

DSC_0851 Yeston spreads the musical wealth around, giving Fidele and Vittorio the jaunty “Death Is In The House,” Dario the infectious “Life’s A Joy,” Alice the catchy “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree,” Daisy and Corrado the passionate “What Do You Do?”, Grazia, Daisy, and Alice the exquisite three-soprano harmonies of  “Finally To Know,” and Evangelina and Dario the wistful “December Time”—sung gloriously by some of MTG’s best and brightest stars.

IMG_0309 As for Eric and Stephanie, Yeston saves the evening’s two most powerful ballads for the late, lamented Roberto’s heartbroken best chum and his grieving mom, the former’s “Roberto’s Eyes” and the latter’s “Losing Roberto,” which McEwen and Bibb performed to deserved audience cheers. (Bibb’s soaring soprano was as expectedly wonderful as McEwan’s soaring tenor proved a breathtaking surprise.)

Still and all, for a musical debuting less than three years ago, Death Takes A Holiday’s 1920s time frame, mannered Italian aristocrats, and repeated creaky references to “the Grim Reaper” make that New York Times “fusty” (“smelling of damp, dust, mildew, or age”) an apt adjective to describe Death Takes A Holiday’s book, begun by Stone and completed by Meehan following his predecessor’s death. While it’s true that there are lighter moments, which director Remsberg made sure to highlight, Death Takes A Holiday is both heavy and heavy-handed, at least for a 21st Century musical.

Speaking of Remsberg, the multiple Scenie winner’s show-opening “car racing” sequence was an imaginative stunner, one which proved exactly how much can be achieved by an ingenious director in the concert staged reading format.

As for the cast, granted a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal time, they are—both separately and as a whole—the crème-de-la-crème of Los Angeles musical theater artists, i.e. no slouches compared to Broadway names like Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Max von Essen, Rebecca Luker, and Jill Paice, who appeared in the off-Broadway original, which by the way starred Kevin Earley as Death/Prince Sirki. Yes, that Kevin Earley, who had built a major L.A. career (including MTG membership and readings) before his New York stardom.

DSC_0841 Musical director James May deserves major kudos for transposing Larry Hochman’s orchestrations to fit an MTG orchestra* about half the size of the original without losing an iota of beauty. And while praise is being doled out, choreographer Peggy Hickey (whose A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder is right now running on Broadway) added her own special gifts to Death Takes A Holiday’s bubbly “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree” and a particularly lovely, graceful “Pavane.”

As always, though costuming remained simple per Equity concert staged reading rules, A. Jeffrey Schoneberg and AJs Costumes came up with a just-right 1920s ensemble for each character, with only Death’s human hands proving distracting. (Black gloves, anyone?) And though scenery-free (another AEA rule), an assortment of chairs and boxes and our imagination did the trick quite niftily. Sean McGarry’s lighting proved quite effective as well, and as was the case with the MTG season opener Wonderful Town, sound at the Moss was a marked improvement over MTG’s previous home at Glendale’s The Alex.

MTG members Heather Hoppus-Werner and Kim Huber served as production coordinators. Art Brickman was production stage manager, aided by assistant stage managers Stephanie Pease and Jessica Standifer. Angela Fong was costume assistant.

Like Wonderful Town before it, Death Takes A Holiday proved a just-right fit for the concert staged reading form. Though talent requirements, budget demands, and that “fusty” book make it unlikely that you’ll be seeing Death Takes A Holiday as a fully staged production any time soon, this “new old chestnut” made for a concert staged reading well worth the time of those lucky enough to have attended.

*Brian Benning (violin), May (piano), Mike Deutsch (percussion), Rory Mazzela (reeds), and Dustin McKinney (trumpet)

The Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, 3131 Olympic Blvd. Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
February 9, 2014
Photos: Stan Chandler and Alan Weston

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