Maury Yeston’s musical Phantom of the Opera may have been eclipsed by another version, but it seems that a fondness for romantic melodramas remained in his system, re-emerging with this show which first appeared off-Broadway in 2011. Based upon La Morte in Vacanza, (a play by Alberto Camellia, filmed most recently as Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt), it tells how Death, perhaps in need of a rest after the Great War, takes a weekend off to experience being human. The metaphysical takes on physical form and becomes very physical with the lovely Grazia, knowing that her life will have to end if she is to stay with him after the end of his holiday. Preposterous plots are a staple of all forms of musical theatre, but, even when disbelief is completely suspended, strands of logic to cling onto are helpful and, here, there are few. The notion that Grazia will escape with her handsome “prince” to die happily ever after is slightly troubling.
The book, by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, has few spoken sections, leaving Yeston’s music and lyrics to tell most of the story and opening again the question of where dividing lines are drawn between operas, operettas and musicals. Yeston’s pedigree (Grand Hotel, Titanic, Nine) could lead to expectations of a score influenced primarily by Broadway, but, in fact, there is much more of Puccini and Lehár than of, say, Gershwin or Sondheim. The composer is in London for this opening and the thought could have occurred to him that he will never hear his lush and melodic music sung better than it is here by a company that would not be out of place half a mile away on the stage at Covent Garden. Indeed, if they would fit in there, then why not the “musical” itself?
If any director is going to give a helping hand to a show that could struggle to find an audience, it is Thom Southerland and he delivers a production that looks as ravishing as it sounds. Morgan Large’s set design of a classical villa beside a Northern Italian lake dominates throughout, perfectly lit in blue/grey (lighting designer Matt Daw) with mists arising from the water and Jonathan Lipman’s period (!922) costume designs are stunning. For the ears, Dean Austin’s 12-piece band does full justice to the music. It all looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, but the same can also be said of a perfume commercial and the key test is how the show connects emotionally with the audience.
Unlike much if his previous work in musical theatre, Southerland’s concept here could be described as grand opera on a reduced scale. Drama is often heightened to melodrama, particularly in the lead performances of Chris Peluso (Death) and Zoë Doano (Grazia), both of whom sing wonderfully. It is a big ask for them to keep the distance that the story necessitates while, at the same time, building a tempestuous relationship and, somehow, the romantic chemistry does not completely gel. The result of this, combined with a plot that never feels quite right, is a show that is not as moving as it sets out to be. That said, this is an admirable production and it brings to an end a three-show season of musicals at the Charing Cross Theatre that has been nothing short of a triumph. Fingers crossed that the team of producer Danielle Tarrento and Southerland will be back here soon.
Performance date: 24 January 2017