Los Angeles Theater Review: DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (Musical Theatre Guild in Santa Monica)

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by Tony Frankel on February 12, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

MTG DEFIBRILLATES DOA MUSICAL

Sheaths can be written about how deadly the musical Death Takes a Holiday is, and where the creators went wrong. What’s more important is that director Calvin Remsberg, musical director Jim May, and a wholly flawless cast have pulled a Frankenstein: They electrified dead tissue and created a vivid being. It may be a monstrous being, but Musical Theatre Guild’s concert staged reading production injected a life force into this mess as strong as that of Poltergeist’s Carol Anne. And if MTG can infuse the same sterling production values into future shows, perhaps we’ll finally see the demise of their one-time-only stagings, and be treated to a short run like New York’s Encores! or L.A.’s now deceased Reprise.

Misty Cotton, Ashley Fox Linton and Melissa Fahn in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Stan Chandler)The musical’s story has inspired numerous adaptations since Alberto Casella’s 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza became a Broadway hit in 1929 (including the 1998 bomb pic Meet Joe Black starring Brad Pitt.) Death arrives at the villa of a nobleman to announce that he will assume the façade of a Russian Prince with looks to die for, and be a guest for the weekend—during which he sets aside his scythe: Nobody on earth will die. He explains his desire to experience why “people cling so tenaciously to life,” yet he really has his brand new eyes set on the nobleman’s daughter. (After what should have been a fatal accident for her the night before, Death faulted at his post when he fell for the foxy socialite). Things start off well as spring itself seems to arrive, but repercussions soon occur for the nobleman’s family and staff.

Dan Callaway in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Stan Chandler)The play’s timeless appeal lies in its glorious intersecting of fantasy, boy-gets-girl love story, and ruminative comedy of manners, which means an adaptation can be placed in any time at any place with any family. Fresh on the heels of their Titanic, Maury Yeston (Nine) and Peter Stone (1776) decided to keep the setting as Northern Italy in the Roaring Twenties, which fueled Yeston to create derivative pastiches of the era wrapped up in a contemporary feel. When Stone died in 2003, Thomas Meehan (Annie) took over as librettist. In the ensuing eight years, they developed a prosaic musical that never decided what it wanted to be, and fell between the cracks of musical comedy, operetta, chamber musical, British Invasion musical, and a Kaufman and Hart play. The grim reapers of this deathtrap never settle on a consistent tone, and the sections of the libretto they chose to musicalize are odd (the musical’s first mistake is a car crash as an opening number but Remsberg magically stages it effectively).

Teri Bibb in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Stan Chandler)Yeston, instead of using songs to further plot and elucidate character, nearly always spells out what we already know. Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Joe Hart, who couldn’t be nobler) has been warned by Death to keep mum about his presence. Also in on the secret is the eavesdropping butler Fidele (Todd Nielsen, wonderfully shaky, cautious, and occasionally hyperactive). Together they sing “Death is in the House.” Yeah, we got that already.

When powerhouse lyric belters like Dan Callaway as Death (in guise as Prince Sirki) and Ashley Fox Linton as the Duke’s engaged daughter Grazia hurl “Alone Here With You” to the heavens, the melodic British Popera tune is actually bearable (his voice is still a treasure, and in character and dialect, Callaway has never been better). The duo shines yet again in the generic “More and More,” seemingly written for Nelson Eddy & Jeannette McDonald by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde): “MORE AND MORE I TURN ASIDE / MORE AND MORE I TRY TO HIDE MY FEELINGS / MORE AND MORE I TRY TO TURN BLACK WHITE / AND MAKE DAY NIGHT / AND FIGHT MY HEARTBEAT.” Yech.

The Company in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Stan Chandler)Even though the hodgepodge of songs sometimes makes Thoroughly Modern Millie profound by comparison, there are fun melodies among the overwrought lyrics. Misty Cotton, beautiful and engaging as Alice, the widow of Grazia’s brother Roberto, turns the fun “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree” into a showstopper, aided by Peggy Hickey’s catchy choreography. The pseudo-haunting “Losing Roberto” is pocked with pedestrian lyrics, but it’s a soprano showcase for Teri Bibb, playing the KIA soldier’s mother. Doug Carfrae and Helen Geller are charming and sweet as an older couple singing “December Time,” but this Cole Porter “True Love” wannabe simply doesn’t stick.

Dan Callaway and Joe Hart in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Stan Chandler)This is the best casting I have seen at MTG in years, yet even the superlative Broadway talent can’t save a few tunes: Roberto’s best friend Eric arrives near the end of Act I with his sister Daisy, and is immediately suspicious of Sirko; after tenor Erik McEwen’s commanding rendition of “Roberto’s Eyes,” the roaring audience momentarily forgot what a clunky, drawn-out, and strained ballad this is. Later, Cotton and Linton join Melissa Fahn as Daisy in the simplistic and saccharine “Finally to Know,” which wants desperately to be “I Have a Love” from West Side Story when it grows up.

Fahn is winning as Daisy, even though she sounds like Miss Adelaide from Guys & Dolls. Indeed, the only strange thing about Remsberg’s immaculate production is the dialects: Carroway is rightfully Russian, Hart has an upper-British bent, but the Doug Carfrae and Helen Geller in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Alan Weston)rest of the dialects are nonexistent or all over the map. Still, we were treated to the nobility of America’s best musical theater artists, including Will Collyer as Grazia’s fiancée Corrado, and Melissa Lyons Caldretti,  Pamela Hamill, and Sam Zeller as the servants.

When Death is told that a lake on the property was created 10,000 years ago, he replies, “Yes, I remember.” It’s a moment that elucidates what a great musical comedy this could have been, instead of the morbidly heavy-handed love story it is. I can even see a song for the servant girl who realizes she almost slept with Death: “It would have been better than a lot of dates I’ve had,” etc.

It may be curtains for this musical, but under the supervision of Kim Huber and Heather Hoppus-Werner, MTG’s production will live forever.

Dan Callaway in Musical Theatre Guild’s production of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (photo by Alan Weston)

photos by Alan Weston and Stan Chandler

Death Takes a Holiday
Musical Theatre Guild
Moss Theatre at New Roads School
3131 Olympic Blvd. in Santa Monica
played on February 9, 2014
for future MTG events, call 818-848-6844 or visit www.musicaltheatreguild.com

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