It's not the specter of the grim reaper that hangs most prominently over the new musical Death Takes a Holiday, now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theater, it's the production's tenuousness and uncertain theatricality.
Given that the show comes from the multiple Tony Award-winning team of book writers Thomas Meehan and the late Peter Stone, and composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, this development is more than a little startling and certainly disappointing. Moreover, Tony winner Doug Hughes' staging alternates between efficiency and fussiness, which only underscores the musical's weaknesses.
Based on Walter Ferris' play of the same title (a revision to Alberto Casella's original), the musical imagines that Death (Julian Ovenden) decides that he needs to understand why mortals fear him. To accomplish this, he adopts the persona of Russian prince Nikokai Sirki, and invites himself to spend the weekend with Duke Vittorio Lamberti (played amiably by Michael Siberry) and his family.
During his time at the duke's villa (which scenic designer Derek McLane indicates with a sumptuously vined, arched patio that's lit with sensitivity by designer Kenneth Posner), Death comes to understand the minor joys of life. He also experiences the intricacies of human emotion, principally love, as he falls for the duke's daughter, Grazia (Jill Paice) -- and she with him.
Both the play and its beloved 1934 movie adaptation have a sort of quaint, silent film-era romantic thriller quality to them. But, for the musical, Meehan and Stone take a different approach, giving the show a frequently glib, almost screwball comedy-like, patina that's at odds with Yeston's lush, romantic, and often operetta-like, score.
Meehan and Stone's contributions include such characters such as the Duke's perpetually eavesdropping majordomo, Fidele (zealously overplayed by Don Stephenson), and Daisy Fenton (given an over-exaggerated turn by Alexandra Socha), a young American girl who lusts shamelessly after Grazia's quickly jilted fiancé Corrado (a stalwart Max von Essen). They have also reset the action in 1921 (the period is handsomely captured in Catherine Zuber's costume designs), which darkens the mood among many characters, who are still reeling from the massive number of fatalities from World War I.
This is particularly true for the Duke and his wife, Stephanie (played by Rebecca Luker, who delivers a number about a mother's grief with decided poignancy), as they continue to mourn their son Roberto's death in action. Also on hand, briefly, is Roberto's best friend Eric (powerfully sung by Matt Cavenaugh), who, having been scarred by the carnage of war, is one of the first characters to have his doubts about the Russian prince.
Other characters have no such qualms about the man, and it's little wonder why given Ovenden's charismatic, gently playful, and often sensual performance. His gorgeous baritone-tenor simply soars, gliding over Yeston's songs with clarion precision. He also shares a remarkable chemistry with a terrifically poised Paice, who uses her gossamer soprano to gorgeous effect, as well as Mara Davi, who delivers an immaculately conceived turn as Roberto's widow, who briefly flirts with Nikolai.
Audiences will savor all of these performances, as well as ones from the underutilized Linda Balgord and Simon Jones as a couple thwarted in love in their youth who find their ardor unexpectedly rekindled, but they can't transform this imperfect show.