Apparently it really did happen in Key West, and that’s probably the most important thing to remember when you’re watching the World Premiere of Jill Santoriello’s new musical It Happened in Key West at the Charing Cross Theatre. The shocking, but true 1930’s story on which it is based kept the tabloids in headlines for weeks, and just as those events divided a community, the musical version could easily divide audiences.
As the marketing material attests, the plot is stranger than fiction. Count Carl von Cosel is shipwrecked on the small island of Key West off the Florida coast, working as an X-Ray technician he meets Elena, the girl of his dreams (literally), but despite his best efforts, she dies. Two years after her death Carl exhumes the body and lives with it in matrimonial bliss for the next seven years, regularly taking his corpse bride on bike rides and picnics.
Directed by Marc Robin, It Happened in Key West on the whole is played for laughs, albeit a very dark humor. The audience can’t help but laugh as Carl gently pops his wife’s head back in to place, and skips around town in delight buying fishing wire to thread her joints back together. At times it verges on pantomime, and feels just a touch over the top, before coming back to a slightly more plausible standpoint.
If you can sidestep the incredulous plot, there’s actually a really poignant love story bubbling underneath. Some of the scenes are incredibly touching, giving a whole new meaning to the term undying love. When Carl ‘talks’ to his deceased love, it’s difficult not to squirm, but at the same time feel quite moved.
The picturesque vistas and knick knacks of sea side life extend beyond the stage, and while there are props, every backdrop comes courtesy of a video screen. Louise Rhoades-Brown’s video design is impressive, and it makes for slick set changes, but lacks some of the thrill that comes with actual scenery moving in and out. The score evokes the 1930’s era almost immediately, and there are some very memorable tunes which are well embedded throughout the production. Many of the songs are performed direct to the audience, while others take a sung-through formation.
Wade McCollum does give a superbly meticulous performance as the obviously crazy Count, in the act one finale, ‘Undying Love’ he cements with the audience his stellar performance, and this continues right through the second act as the character becomes a mix of a revered and pitied figure. When Alyssa Martyn is able to sing (she is a corpse for large sections of the show), her vocals are extraordinary, she allows us to see Elena both as an individual character and as the figment of Carl’s imagination.
The remaining members of the cast are pretty much left out in the cold, as their characters are essentially blended in to the background or pushed to exaggerated caricatures. It has certainly been brave of the creative team to take such an outlandish story and turn it in to a musical, but if you can get over the discomfiting nature of It Happened in Key West you’re left with a romantic tale of just how far someone would go for love.