Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 8 August 2018
Despite the strong performances from its two leads, this quirky musical seems to trivialise the true story on which it is based.
On paper the idea of making a musical based on a grieving person who lives with the corpse of his beloved for seven years is certainly quirky and odd but adding to the mix a sense of humour which seems oddly placed, the musical gets the audience questioning about whether it is in fact appropriate material for a show of this kind.
Based on the story of Count Carl von Cosel, It Happened in Key West follows Carl as he obsesses over Elena who he believes is the woman that he is destined to be with. But when he discovers that she is terminally ill, he promises to protect her body after her death – ending up with her corpse at his home for seven years before what he had done was discovered.
A strength for the musical is Jill Santriello’s music and lyrics (also Jason Huza), with songs such as ‘Undying Love’ (sung powerfully by Wade McCollum) and ‘At the End of the World’ that are pleasing to the ear. The majority of the songs have purpose and add a much needed emotional core that can lack in places – even if we could live without the reprises of some songs to keep the show sharp.
It is a shame then that the book is the key weakness in the show – the story is painfully thin and the added moments of humour (such as having Elena’s arm falling off or the bizarre wedding ceremony) that distract from the tragedy and disturbing elements of the real-life story to the point it trivialises the topic of grief. The story is at its strongest in the second act when all is discovered and you can see the pain that Carl is in when he realises that he won’t be able to ‘look after’ Elena anymore – highlighting the grief that he must have felt at losing Elena initially all over again.
Sadly, there are other flaws to be found. Although it is billed as a ‘romantic musical comedy’, what it is in fact is a story of unrequited love: Elena never felt for Carl the way he did for her – there is very little romance about it (and if there is it is one sided). Marc Robin’s choreography also fails to take into account that as Elena’s disease takes hold she would not be able to dance the way she does on occasion during the show – making it slightly unbelievable.
Performance wise, Wade McCollum as Carl offers a sympathetic portrayal of a character unable to let go of his grief or love for Elena that is genuinely moving, particularly when all is revealed. But he also goes deeper into the character, revealing the depth of his obsession that again shows the potential of a darker production. Vocally, he is equally impressive as his rendition of ‘Undying Love’ certainly proves. Alyssa Martyn is equally impressive as the sweet natured Elena who desperately wants to get better to return to her husband – but could possibly bring out the pain and trauma that her character’s disease brings a bit more to make a stronger impact. Vocally, she is as clear as bell and offers plenty of sincerity. Johan Munir as Mario is strong support for both characters – the most grounded and realistic character in the whole show.
If It Happened in Key West had been treated more like a gothic musical (which quite a few of the songs hinted at) about grief, love and loss it would have been stronger. But as it is by adding a quirky sense of humour to it makes it seem as though it is trivialising the serious issues that the true story contains. In its current form, it is a musical which doesn’t know what it wants to be – too many ideas from too many people.