Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 8 August 2018
After washing up from a shipwreck on the beaches of Florida’s Key West, German radiology technician Carl Tanzler (going by the name Count Carl Von Cosel) becomes besotted with a young local woman named Elena, believing her to be the true love he foresaw in a dream many years ago. Unfortunately for Carl, not only is Elena married but after examining her he discovers that she has tuberculosis, a death sentence in the mid-1900s. Despite his best efforts, Carl was unable to save Elena, but in a bizarre act of devotion, he removed her body from its final resting place, continuing to care for her corpse, in his own home, for seven years.
While that plot may sound too far-fetched to believe, it is in based on a true story that inspired book writer Jill Santoriello and collaborators Jason Huza and Jeremiah James enough to create this gothic-comedy musical adaptation.
In the hands of other creatives, the show could very well have ended up as rather more disturbing. A crank aspirant doctor experimenting on a trusting young woman using untested electrotherapy, falling in love with her to the point of all-consuming infatuation and then stealing her cadaver is chilling stuff.
But instead, the story very much takes Tanzler’s side, portraying him as a well-meaning eccentric who is defending the woman he believes is destined to be his bride. And so despite the story’s inescapable morbidity Carl and Elena’s love story ends up as rather sweet and touching, at least for the most part.
American actor Wade McCollum leads the musical as the oddball Count. With unrelenting buoyancy, he easily sells Carl’s peculiar manifestation of love-sickness. Fantastic too, is Alyssa Martyn’s Elena. Although severely underwritten (perhaps to emphasise the possibility that Elena is a blank slate onto which Carl is projecting the woman of his dreams), Martyn is an enchanting presence on stage, conveying Elena’s sweetness and naiveté. Meanwhile in the role of Mario, Elena’s brother-in-law, Johan Munir provides great support, his strained earnestness helping to ground the otherwise breezy outré romance.
The success of this musical lives or dies on the ability of the audience to buy into Carl’s belief that he and Elena are divine soulmates. Whilst the first act sees them both embark on a sweeping arc, with the rousing tear-jerking act one closing number Undying Love acting as a tragic yet fitting ending to both characters’ journeys, the grisly novelty of Carl’s obsession with his love’s decaying cadaver, which act two relies so heavily upon, is harder to invest in. After the interval Carl comes across as less of an ardent romantic in mourning, and more the disturbed fanatic. Even though Santoriello’s witty book supports the second act with plenty of saturnine humour and Marc Robin’s direction is full of dark moments of physical comedy, there’s no escaping the fact that the second half lacks the pacing, stakes and congeniality of the first. The story’s uniqueness thus fizzles out long before the show comes to an end.
Despite these shortcomings, It Happened In Key West takes risks which more often than not, pay off. As beguiling as it is macabre, this morbid musical comedy needs to be seen to be believed.
Runs until 18th AugustReviewed by Charlotte O’GrowneyPhoto credit: Darren Bell