It Happened in Key West
Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 10th July 2018
“Although an accomplished production with crisp direction from Marc Robin, this musical doesn’t quite have the voltage needed to bring it to life“
They often say that truth is stranger than fiction, and the real-life story on which “It Happened in Key West” is based seems to be no exception. Lifted from the 1940s newspaper headlines, the story begins with Count Carl von Cosel (Wade McCollum) being shipwrecked on the small island in the Straits of Florida. A brilliant, yet arrogant German scientist, he immediately lands a job as an X-ray technician at the local hospital. It is here that he finds his true love; local girl, Elena (Alyssa Martyn), who is the woman of his dreams that he has been searching for since childhood.
What ensues is, on paper, quite absurd. The Count, a ridiculous Pollyanna, overcomes with ingenuous ease two pretty large obstacles that stand in the way of his future happiness with Elena – what is strange, though, is that her happiness is never a consideration. Firstly, she is married, though that minor inconvenience is brushed away quite swiftly. The second is a bit tougher. She has tuberculosis – a death-sentence at the time. Though Carl does his best to save her life, she succumbs to her illness, but not before entrusting Carl with caring for her body in death. This responsibility is taken to its extreme, which is what gives flesh to the bones of the story – although it has, by now, taken over half the performance to reach this point.
Carl’s own journal is the source of what happens over the next seven years of bizarrely blissful matrimony, living in his cottage on the beach while he dotes over his slowly decomposing bride. Yet Jill Santoriello, who wrote the book, lyrics and music, seems to stifle the ‘stranger-than-fiction’ material, burying its comic potential in a mausoleum of mawkishness. I would so love to see this in the hands of a duo like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. I realise that this might be an unfair and possibly irrelevant aspiration, but the audience could be forgiven for expecting some sort of nod in this direction. It is a macabre and quirky tale: and potentially hard to swallow – but too many spoonfuls of sugar make this adaptation too easy.
McCollum is the stand out performer, sometimes letting a touchingly legato loneliness show through the cracks in his scientifically manic obsession with the dead Elena. And with a twinkle in his eye he adds a much-needed extra dimension to the show, whilst his rich baritone fills the auditorium. But he is very much out there on his own, his optimism matching that of his character’s.
The life and death of Carl von Cosel is a fascinating story, begging to be told in this particular art form of musical theatre; where fantasy and reality collide. Although an accomplished production with crisp direction from Marc Robin, this musical doesn’t quite have the voltage needed to bring it to life. And despite some strong ensemble voices the music is at odds with the text. Overladen with power ballads, the score cruises along nicely enough, but without even the slightest oddity in the narrative steering it away from the middle of the road.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Darren Bell
It Happened in Key West
Charing Cross Theatre until 18th August
Previously reviewed at this venue