I saw my first Musical Theatre Guild staged reading in 1997 and have seen many of their productions since then. You could get Vegas odds that MTG’s production would be the best sung version you had ever encountered. Their latest offering, the Los Angeles premiere of the 2011 off-Broadway musical DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, was no exception. All 14 cast members who appeared in the February 9th performance are musical theatre heavyweights. Their choral harmonies would make a heavenly choir weep in envy. Two-time Tony Award winning Composer Maury Yeston has composed a lush and romantic score, faintly reminiscent of his score for PHANTOM, and Musical Director James May and his five-piece on-stage orchestra gave it a full-bodied rendition. Yeston’s lyrics were at times too facile and predictable but the singers sang them with complete conviction. The score suffers from RAGTIMEitis –every character and situation gets a song, whether needed or not. The book by the late Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan is both too jokey and too stodgy, based on the 1929 Broadway play of the same title. The show might have worked better as a sung through musical like FALESETTOS. But there is enough merit in the show to warrant a fully staged production somewhere in Southern California, especially with this talented cast.
Director Calvin Remsberg did his usual stellar job of staging the show, making sure the cast and the action on the thrust stage of the Moss Theater was seen by everyone in the audience. He also is an expert at getting his cast to unearth the dramatic and musical treasures buried in their characters with only a total rehearsal time of 25 hours. Death (the imperious and imposing Dan Callaway) decides to take a weekend off from his duties for the first time since the beginning of time to try to understand why humans so desperately cling to life. He also desires to experience human emotions such as love. Posing as Russian Prince Sirki, the Lamberti family and the other guests in their villa near Venice in post WW I Italy become his less than willing hosts. Of course he immediately falls in love with the lively and vivacious Grazia (the stunning Ashley Fox Linton who possesses an amazing voice) and she falls for him. Complications ensue as her fiancée and family react.
Joe Hart provided a solid and endearing presence as the family patriarch and Teri Bibb as his Duchess shined in her solo “Losing Roberto.” Misty Cotton stole her scenes as the flirtatious flapper widow from Indiana. Her “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree,” in which she teaches Death how to do the Charlestown, was a highlight. Lending oodles of charm to the show were Helen Geller as the aging addled Contessa and Doug Carfrae as the doctor who has always been in love with her. Their “December Time” was an endearing moment. Erik McEwen as fly boy Eric delivered a powerful “Roberto’s Eyes.” Todd Nielsen, as butler Fidele, added much needed comic relief to the somber tale. Sam Zeller, Pamela Hamill and Melissa Lyons Caldretti provided great vocal support as the villa’s staff of servants. Will Collyer and Melissa Fahn rounded out the top notch cast.