Six days a week, Michael Siberry and Linda Balgord board a Metro-North train at the Bronxville station and, before long, they’re at a lakeside Italian villa in 1921.
It’s quite a commute for the Broadway veterans who only discovered they were Bronxville neighbors at the first rehearsal for their new Off-Broadway musical, “Death Takes a Holiday,” which opens July 21 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.
“Nobody I work with is ever from Bronxville,” says Balgord, who played Queen Elizabeth I in “The Pirate Queen” and the queen of all stage mothers, Mama Rose, as a standby for Patti LuPone in “Gypsy.”
“So Michael and I have been talking about all things Bronxville.”
In “Death Takes a Holiday” — based on Alberto Casella’s 1924 play of the same name — Death takes human form to find out why men fear him and why they cling to life so desperately. During the time Death spends with the Lamberti family (led by Siberry’s Duke Vittorio, sworn to secrecy about his guest’s identity), no one in the world dies.
Siberry, an Australian, says the original play, written after the devastation of World War I, “was a way of personifying this awful cataclysm that people had been living with for so long, telling them not to be afraid of death and to accept it.”
There were 1934, 1971 and 1998 screen versions of the story (the last was “Meet Joe Black,” starring Brad Pitt), but this is the first one in which the vacationing Death sings and dances.
This musical incarnation has been years in the making, beginning with composer Maury Yeston (“Nine”) and book writer Peter Stone (“1776”). After Stone’s 2003 death, Suffern native Tom Meehan (“The Producers”) joined the creative team, led at the Roundabout by director Doug Hughes.
It stars Jill Paice (“Curtains”) as Grazia Lamberti, the daughter of Duke Vittorio Lamberti?(Siberry) and Duchess Stephanie Lamberti (Rebecca Luker). The title character is played by Julian Ovenden, who poses as Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki.
Balgord plays Siberry’s mother-in-law, Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli, a widow of 30 years whose grasp on reality is tenuous.
“She comes in and out of it, certainly, but she’s the one who immediatley knows who Death is and she’s right,” Balgord says. “Nobody else gets it.”
The visitor has an impact on the household, which is still reeling from the death of a son, Roberto, in the Great War.
“It’s not just about Death having a high old time at somebody’s villa,” Siberry says. “There’s a terrible cost to it, the pain of life, which so many people in that period of history lived through.
“To see the play when it was first performed, there would have been so many parents in the audience who could relate to that, a generation left behind by the loss of so many of their children.”
Vittorio soon learns that his daughter and Death share an infatuation and he runs through a range of emotions to keep from losing another child: reasoning, bargaining and eventually pleading with Death to leave his daughter alone.
“It’s difficult because you’re dealing with somebody who’s omnipotent,” Siberry says. “You can appeal, you can argue, but he’s all powerful.”
Balgord’s Evangelina becomes more lucid over the course of Death’s visit and declares her love for her longtime companion, Dr. Dario Albione (Simon Jones), in a charming song “December Time,” that includes the Yeston lyric celebrating a more-seasoned love: “Until you reach December time, your heart may lose its way.”
“It’s a lovely little song,” Balgord says. “So many musicals are all about the kids, so I think it’s nice that this appeals to a broader age range.”
Balgord says Yeston’s music is “lush, romantic, sweeping and much different than most things you hear nowadays.”
“It’s incredibly singer friendly, to get to sing such gorgeous melodies,” she says. “And the fact that there’s a fugue in it. As a singer, this is something we don’t get to do that often in musical theater.”
All the more reason to board that Metro-North train bound for long-ago Italy.
Photo by Joan Marcus: The cast of “Death Takes a Holiday” includes, from left: Rebecca Luker, Michael Sibbery and Linda Balgord (seated).
“Death Takes a Holiday” In previews. Opens July 21 for a run through Sept. 4. 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. (between Sixth and Seventh avenues). $76 to $86. 212-719-1300. Details at the Roundabout Theater website.