On the surface Death Takes a Holiday, the whimsical musical adaptation of the 1920 play of the same name at the Laura Pels Theatre and Jerusalem, the grippingly dark British import by Jez Butterworth in residence at The Music Box Theatre are light years apart. Yet both challenge our conventional comfortable notions of life and death, good and evil.
Death Takes a Holiday stretches credulity inviting us along on a weekend retreat with a wealthy Italian family where Death makes an offer that cannot be refused in order to see whether life is all it’s cracked up to be. The Prince of Death (aka Russian Prince Nicolai Sirki played by Julian Ovenden) is overtaken by his curiosity and falls in love with Grazia Lamberti (Jill Paice) whose desire to live on the wild side makes them a match made in…well, take your pick.
Checking your sense of reality at the door along with your ticket is necessary to gain admission to playwright Alberto Cassella’s outlandish plot. Having done so, you struggle with Grazia’s father Duke Vitorrio Lamberti (Michael Siberry) as he realizes the permanence of his loss if his daughter follows her heart and his resignation in knowing that her fate is beyond his control. In addition to its current incarnation, the play was adapted for the screen in 1934 starring Frederick Marsh and more recently as Meet Joe Black starring Brad Pitt. The recent production directed by Doug Hughes enjoys a well-crafted although not entirely noteworthy operatic score by Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine) and a strong leading role performance by Ovenden.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, set in the outskirts of Flintock, a rural hamlet north of Stonehenge in contemporary England is a different sort of fairy tale. The title is from a popular British hymn of the same name, based on a poem by William Blake which likens rural England to heaven on earth. From the moment the curtain rises we are immersed in the scrappy hard-nosed struggles of anti-hero Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance), former Evil Knievel-type motorcycle daredevil, local drug dealer and town scourge. But beneath his devilishly rough exterior is a compassionate spiritual soul. Byron, a rural squatter, is facing eviction from his dilapidated Airstream trailer in the woods (his own version of heaven on earth) in order to make room for yet another suburban housing development.
But he is not about to go quietly. Rooster is an enigmatic, magnetic dynamo, a modern-day Pied Piper who rallies his disciples (and the audience) to his cause. The predominantly original British cast including McKenzie Cook as Rooster’s sidekick, Ginger, Allen David as the addle-minded Professor, plus American actor Johnny Gallagher Jr. as Lee were outstanding. Tony Award-winning Rylance’s performance was among the most riveting you will ever see and is so critical to the show that there is no understudy for the role.