BWW Interviews: DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY'S Jill Paice
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by Joseph F. Panarello
Writers have been personifying the concept of Death for many ages. Geoffrey Chaucer made him a wizened old man who points some riotous characters to three bushels laden with gold in the story told by The Pardoner in THE CANTERBURY TALES. The antithesis of this is the presentation of Death in Maury Yeston's beguiling new musical DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY which is now on stage at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre.
In this tuneful show, Death is presented as a good-looking and charming young man brilliantly played by Julian Ovenden. When encountering Grazia Lamberti on an Italian coastline, he becomes completely smitten with her. Why shouldn't he? Grazia is played by Jill Paice who imbues the character with such grace and charm that she could stop even the vilest of creatures in his tracks. Paice not only acts to perfection and sings with incredible clarity of tone that she proves herself to be one of the brightest lights in musical theater. In fact, when reviewing this show, Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard declared the actress to be "a treasure."
Having appeared on Broadway in THE WOMAN IN WHITE and CURTAINS, to say nothing of Broadway's 39 STEPS at the Helen Hayes Theatre and the West End's musical version of GONE WITH THE WIND, there are many who feel that her current production is the break-out everyone has been waiting for.
Speaking by phone while DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY was still in previews, Paice seemed incredibly calm, which is an indication that all is going smoothly for the show. "It's a little exhausting," she says with a sparkle in her voice," but I wouldn't have it any other way." When asked what changes had been made in the show since it started in previews,, Paice explains: "I'd say last week we made big shifts by including the character of Death right in the opening number. It's had a trickle effect on many other aspects of the show. We're still trying out new things to counterbalance that. The creative team is making little cuts here and there and trying new ideas. It's an exciting process to be a part of."
Paice has nothing but nIce Things to say about Ovenden, who is her leading man in the musical. "The whole show really rest on his shoulders. It's a hard character to play and make sympathetic. Julian has a wonderful opportunity to play Death as a human for the first time, so everything he's experiencing and feeling gives us the comedy, the drama and the romance in the piece. He does a wonderful job with it." Audiences seem to agree because they relish every moment the actor is on stage and are swept up in the on stage romance between him and Paice. At curtain calls the applause is deafening for the two of them.
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY features a veritable roster of accomplished Broadway professionals that one might say it's an embarrassment of riches. Featured in the cast are Rebecca Luker, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Siberry, Mara Davi, Max Von Essen and Don Stephenson. "Everyone seems to be lovingly featured in this show", comments the actress. "It feels to me like an ensemble piece with Julian at the head of our ship." Continuing, she says, "It's a wonderful opportunity and to get to sing Maury's music and this kind of music is a pleasure. If you look around Broadway right now you'll find that there isn't too much of that going around. It's great to be in New York doing a show. It's the best feeling in the world. I'm very honored to be up on that stage."
Talking about her younger years, Paice explains that she grew up mostly in Dayton, Ohio but hastily adds that she's an "Air Force Brat". Born in North Dakota, she's lived all over the world as a result of her father's profession.
Strangely enough, Jill Paice cannot pinpoint an exact moment when she knew she wanted to be a performer. "I'll say that I did shows all through my childhood and it was a great way to meet people. When you're dealing with bullies or feeling insecure because you're a new kid, theater was a great way to become incorporated into the community. There's a wonderful program in Daytoncalled ‘The Muse Machine'. It's run by Nat Horne and David Dusing. They were New York people who put on a show every year using kids from all the different schools. They bring the set in from the tour, along with lots of the costumes. It felt like a professional production but obviously we were still in high school. It was a big deal in the community. So I started doing that in high school and I really found myself enjoying it very much. Then--I believe it was David Dusing--who told me I really should do this. Maybe I was 15 or 16 at the time. I started to get really serious about acting and considered going to school for musical theater...and then it was just about convincing my parents to let me do that," she adds with a wonderfully girlish giggle.
When writing his review of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, Christopher Isherwood of the New YorkTimes wrote "Ms Paice has a bright, pure soprano." Indeed, her voice is quite refreshing and remarkable. The actress explains that she'd been taking voice lessons her whole life and sang in choirs, however, she cites her teachers who allowed her to believe in herself. "I had wonderful voIce Teachers my whole life, including Joan Lader here in New York City. "I think they're the ones who tell us we can do this."
A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College, Ms Paice is proud of her alma mater. "I went to visit it when I was a senior in high school and I loved the campus. I loved the school. I was really attracted to the program because it was a small program. They took very few students per year in order to really focus and refine a person's talent. It was also a very safe environment. I had auditioned for CCM but I didn't get in and was crushed. However, in the end, B-W was just meant to be. It turned out to be the best place for me.
Jill Paice's first tour was in the ensemble of LES MISERABLES. "It was a huge thing for me," she recalls. "I'd known that show since I was ten years old and was always listening to the record album. I toured with that for a few months and left to open MAMMAMIA in Las Vegas, playing Sophie." Performing in Vegas was a pleasure for her. "I was 22 or 23 and I loved Vegas. I had a great time there! A lot of people from the cast wound up buying homes in the vicinity. We just had a great time because you could feel like a real star -going out every night after the show,"
When the conversation turns to THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Paice becomes reflective and she comments, "The whole thing was so surreal. I never thought I'd be going to London in this chosen profession, so when the West End came a-callin' I was pretty much knocked off my feet. The experience was wonderful. I loved London. I really think that if I could choose, I would prefer to live in London. There's just something about the energy of that place that attracts me more than the energy of New York. Don't get me wrong, I love New York, but London holds the key to my heart."
In A WOMAN IN WHITE, Jill Paice found herself working with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn and David Zipple. "It was surreal. That's really the word. I'm lucky to have had several of those moments in my life where you're sort of looking around the room and you see Michael Crawford, Maria Friedman and all the others. I felt that I was just watching it all happen."
THE WOMAN IN WHITE crossed the Atlantic and opened in New York with much of the British cast in place. "It was exciting to transfer with the show and make my Broadway debut with it. The whole thing was very romantic and sort of other-worldly." She continues, "I have very good memories of that show-particularly in London where we were designing the show and creating it. I felt extremely at home. When we were in New York we found ourselves dealing with Maria's breast cancer and we received reviews that weren't exactly terrible, but it wasn't the show for New York at that moment. That was heartbreaking."
There wasn't all that much time for Jill Paice to mope. Her next Broadway appearance was opposite David Hyde Pierce in Kander and Ebb's CURTAINS! It was a brand-new show, but two members of the creative staff were missing. "Fred Ebb had passed away," Paice explains, "and Peter Stone, who wrote the original book had also died. Oddly enough, we always felt that they were looking down on us. Our set was basically a theater and on the back wall we had their names painted on some of the fake brick to keep them alive in our memories." The actress continues by saying "The wonderful thing is that Rupert Holmes came in and completely transformed the show with his creativity and his sense of comedy. I have to say that CURTAINS! was the highlight of my career. I was working with the most wonderful group of people who were piecing together a show. Of course, at the top were David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk. There was a phenomenal group involved in that project. What was particularly fun for us was that it celebrated theater. It was a celebration of what we do despite the struggle and the heartbreak."
Paice left CURTAINS! shortly before its closing so she could accept the role of Scarlett O'Hara in a musical version of GONE WITH THE WIND that producer Aldo Scrofani was preparing to open in London. This is not to be confused with a musical of the same title starring Leslie Ann Warren and Harve Presnell that toured the States but never made it to New York. "We had a completely new version," she explains. "It was written by Margaret Martin and Trevor Nunn did a bit of writing on it. It was done very much like ‘poor man's theatre' -much like DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, where you have one environment and a lot of it is left to your imagination. Our set design extended into the theater with picket fences and flags and signs. It wasn't completely in-the-round but it was a thrust stage."
Looking back on it, Paice feels it was a good experience. "For me it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The very idea that any producer would take a chance on --let's be honest-a complete unknown to come in and play Scarlett O'Hara is unbelievable. I'd done the workshop of it but I always expected to be replaced. So to be there presenting a new work was an honor. It was also hard work. It was hard to be on stage for nearly three solid hours, but I loved it. In fact, I love what I do and I will always accept any opportunity to do it. It was thrilling and I thought the show was beautiful."
Not everyone shared Paice's opinion of the show. "Presenting GONE WITH THE WIND on the stage as a musical is always going to be difficult because audiences have clear ideas from the movie and from the novel. The have preconceived notions about what they want to see. Of course we can't present all of those things either from the book or the movie on one stage within a respectable amount of time. We were up against a lot and we just couldn't survive. It was another heartbreaking experience. I went from the great thrill of being up there to having a meeting after the show and the producer saying he loves us and he loves the show but we can't keep going. Then you get your closing notice."
The situation is a bit different with DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. It's a set run and will be on stage until September. "The first time I did a reading of it was in 2005, so I've been with the show for a while. It kept popping into my life every year. You know, you can't help falling in love with Maury's music and the idea of this sort-of fairy tale in which death can take a holiday."
In this show, Jill Paice has the opportunity to dance on stage with the character of Death. Has the reality of that moment ever set in on the actress? Has she ever realized that she was hoofing it up like Ginger Rogers with something most people fear most? "Emotionally everyone has a different view of death and the afterlife. I can see how asking an audience to sympathize with either myself or the character of Death could be a hard job. What I think we should keep is mind is our attempt to change peoples' minds about what comes next. Instead of fearing it and spending our entire lives doing so, how exciting would it be to change someone's view into being curious or excited?" That may sound like truly abstract thinking nut it isn't all that removed from Sir James L. Barry's Peter Pan, who utters the line "Death. What an exciting adventure!" Now who's going to quibble with Peter Pan?
No, the concept of death being a daring adventure isn't a new one. However, it's being presented in such a delightful manner in DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY that theater-goers are having a marvelous time watching it. Of course, they're enjoying Jill Paice at the same time and that may be one of the sterling reasons the show is working so well. To order tickets for DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, go to www.roundabouttheatre.org