“Death takes a holiday” is one of those wise, cynical, darkly funny old-European concepts that should yield rich fictional results, both comic and philosophical. The idea, which got its start in a 1924 play by Italian Alberto Casella, is that Death decides to take a break from collecting souls to ponder the meaning of, well, himself. What does death mean to human beings? Why does it terrify them? Two movies have been based on Casella’s play, and the musical Death Takes a Holiday debuted in 2011, with songs by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan (Stone died before the work was finished). In this version, it's a beautiful young woman who pulls Death up short: A car crash leaves the just-engaged Grazia lying in the road, and Death simply can’t bear to gather her up and consign her to darkness – so she rises unscathed, albeit with a clear sense that something life-changing has just happened to her. “How Will I Know?” she sings. Meanwhile, Death visits Grazia’s family’s villa in the hills above Venice and takes her father, Duke Vittorio Lamberti, into his confidence, after first swearing him to secrecy and promising to stay only for a weekend. He’s now wearing the body of a Russian prince called Nikolai Sirki, who recently committed suicide, and he’s very handsome. Soon all the women in the place are swooning over him, the men fret that there’s something profoundly threatening and wrong about this strange fellow, and Death and Grazia are falling more and more deeply in love.
Unfortunately, the musical doesn’t really engage with the rich quirkiness of the concept, the script is a thudder and the song lyrics are obvious. There are a few funny scenes, as when young Alice teaches a befuddled Death the Charleston (“Shimmy Like They Do in Paree”), but the scant humor is either bland or outright sophomoric: Death doesn’t know what a fried egg is, for example, and when he gets a hard-on as a pretty maid comes too close, he doesn’t understand what’s happened to him. Oh, come on: Death and sex have known each other throughout eternity. Death is the deepest of subjects, but the script barely scratches the surface, and the character of Death himself is inconsistent. Sometimes he directly threatens those who oppose him, sometimes he says he has no control over who lives and who dies, that he’s merely a foot soldier. Whose, we wonder. And while Death/Nikolai has just a little personality, the script gives poor Grazia absolutely none, only the outline of the requisite beautiful, lovestruck heroine.
Still, the current Arvada Center production of Death Takes a Holiday floats on a buoyant tide of lush and often very lovely music, and if the acting is sometimes stilted, the voices assembled by director Rod A. Lansberry are superb. Death is played by tall, square-jawed and sometimes sweetly diffident Peter Saide, who has a flowing baritone and enough charm to power a dozen musical love stories. Kristen Hahn, playing Grazia, possesses a heart-stoppingly gorgeous soprano. And everywhere on stage, you find other musical talents that range from exquisite to interestingly eccentric: a good thing, since huge swaths of the story are told — and repeated — in song. James Van Treuren is a delightful Baron Dario Albione, delightfully matched by Erica Sarzin-Borrillo’s Contessa Evangelina in the wistful duet “September Time,” and Megan Van De Hey’s grief-filled tribute to the son she lost to war, “Losing Roberto,” is deeply moving. One of the best moments of the evening is provided by the rippling chords and overlapping harmonies of “Finally to Know,” a trio sweetly sung by three lovelorn lasses: Grazia herself; Daisy, played by Tessa Elyse; and Emily Van Fleet’s Alice. All of these vocal talents receive ample support from David Nehls’s supple musical direction. Clare Henkel’s pretty costumes and Brian Mallgrave’s elegant scenery also help set the scene.
If there’s not a lot of soul to the telling of this fable, at least there are generous dollops of pure musical magic to compensate.
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Death Takes a Holiday runs through May 15 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada. Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. May 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, as well as matinees at 2 p.m. May 14 and 15; a show at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, will be followed by a moderated talkback. Tickets range from $53 to $75; get them here. For more information, call 720-898-7200 or go to arvadacenter.org.