Compellingly introspective musicals are hard to come by, the last successful one being Adam Guettel’s “Light in the Piazza.” Maury Yeston, of “Nine” and “Titanic,” is one of the few Broadway composers who has demonstrated the ability to weave the necessary spell, and his score for “Death Takes a Holiday” hits splendid heights. But the long-gestating tuner, derived from an Americanization of a mystical Italian play from the post-WWI era, feels like a worn elastic band that has lost its snap. The show is worthy and far from deathlike, but it’s often too lethargic by half.
Alberto Casella’s 1924 play “La morte in vacanza” had great resonance in a society coping with the early death of a substantial part of the younger generation, and the work met with distinct success, both on Broadway in 1929 and as a film in 1934. But this tale of the Grim Reaper on a weekend fling at a country estate, last seen as the 1998 pic “Meet Joe Black,” has lost much of its intrigue in this latest incarnation.
The problem is not that the story is old, but rather that the dramaturgy is quaint. Death (Julian Ovenden) is so startled by the beauty of the young Italian woman Grazia (Jill Paice) that he effectively goes on strike, preventing all deaths worldwide for the weekend. Disguised as Prince Sirki from Minsk, he joins a house party at the Villa Felicita outside Venice, intriguing the ladies with devilish charm, antagonizing the jealous men and singing mesmerizing duets with Grazia.
Composer Yeston and librettist Peter Stone (“1776”) began work on the tuner in 1997, after their Tony-winning “Titanic,” but the project was shelved after Sept. 11 — the excuse given was that it was too depressing — and Stone died in 2003. After a break, jokemeister Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”) took up the challenge of reinvigorating the material; while he has clearly added laughs, the mystical melodramatic touches from 1924 continually dampen the show as it slowly moves along. Director Doug Hughes (“Doubt”) has drawn an initial musical assignment that appears to be beyond his reach.
That’s a shame, as Yeston has given us yet another intriguing score, and while his lyrics might make you scratch your head occasionally, any such lapses are more than atoned for by his soaring music. The score is especially well dressed by orchestrator Larry Hochman, with Kevin Stites leading the band on a platform high above the stage.
Among the show’s key attributes is an especially fine group of singing actors. Ovenden, who made his local debut in 2006 as Nathan Lane’s young protege in “Butley,” is a charismatic leading man along Hugh Jackman lines; here’s someone who could play Billy Bigelow. Paice (“Curtains”) makes a fair heroine, although she is somewhat overshadowed by Rebecca Luker as her duchess mother, whose second-act solo, “Roberto’s Eyes,” is one of the highlights of the evening.
Michael Siberry, as the gentleman who knowingly lets Death into his home, and Don Stephenson, as a member of the house, ably handle the plot demands, and Mara Davi brightens the evening with the liveliest number, a shimmy (or is it the Charleston?) reminiscent of Yeston’s “I Want to Go to Hollywood” in “Grand Hotel.” Yeston fans will find many familiar musical strains, from “Nine” and “Phantom,” but happily so; they are like ghostly friends come back to entertain us in this ghostly entertainment.
Production values are high at this Off Broadway offering from the Roundabout, as Yeston serves up an intriguing puzzle of a musical, with a score that will sound entrancing on the cast album. But its prospects as a crowdpleaser look rather wan. Indeed, “Death Takes a Holiday” seems an unlikely candidate for an extended run, a Broadway transfer, or much of an afterlife.