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Death Takes a Holiday review at Charing Cross Theatre, London – ‘daring and unusual’

Chris Peluso and Zoe Doano in Death Takes A Holiday at Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Thom Southerland’s opening season as artistic director of Charing Cross Theatre has consisted of a trilogy of American musicals. He concludes it with the British premiere of Maury Yeston’s 2011 Off-Broadway musical, Death Takes a Holiday.

Southerland clearly has a special affinity for Yeston’s work and his particular brand of lush, soaring romanticism. He directed Titanic at Southwark Playhouse in 2013, and revived it at Charing Cross last year; he also staged Grand Hotel at Southwark in 2015.

While the two earlier shows were shrink-wrapped from their original large-scale Broadway incarnations and made to feel even more powerful in an intimate setting, Death Takes a Holiday is already an insinuating chamber musical.

It revolves around a daring proposition – death itself is a major character in a show. Returning from their engagement party in Venice, Corrado Danielli (Ashley Stillburn) crashes the car he is driving and his new fiancee Grazia Lamberti (Zoe Doano) is thrown clear, but she survives unexpectedly. It turns out that the Grim Reaper had come to collect her, but when he saw her he has other ideas and instead becomes an unexpected visitor in her life.

Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone’s book, based on a play by Alberto Casello, is a mordant meditation on mortality; it is one of only a handful of musicals to make the afterlife a matter of life and death, along with Carousel, Ghost and Next to Normal. But Yeston’s particular inspiration is to wrap this darkest of themes in a rich symphony of melody that creates its own thrilling soundscape.

The production serves both superbly. The music is sumptuously played by a 10-piece band under Dean Austin, while a cast of superb singers, led by the robustly-voiced Chris Peluso as Death and the shimmering soprano Zoe Doano as the fiancee, offer a ravishing account of the songs. It is sometimes said that the devil has all the good tunes; here, death has only some of them.

This killer of a production meets the daring and unusual ambition of its material with finely calibrated textures throughout. Beautifully designed by Morgan Large, with a series of walled arches that reconfigure to change locations, and with stunning costumes by Jonathan Lipman, the one deficit is that lighting designer Matt Daw overdoes the use of atmospheric haze. The show is in every other respect a model of restraint yet full of yearning feeling.

Yeston wrote his own version of The Phantom of the Opera (simply called Phantom) in 1991, but there was no way it could compete with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version, given that it was already a global hit then. This show feels like his altogether more successful attempt to chart a highly unusual and strangely compelling romance.

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Thom Southerland impresses again with an insinuating chamber musical