Sometimes the words ‘based on a true story’ around a show really get me excited. Some stories, based around genuine events make excellent shows that entertain, educate and leave the audience wanting to know so much more about the events portrayed on stage. At other times those words fill me with a sense of foreboding and cause me to question why anyone in their right mind would want to turn an event into a musical theatre production. Initially, It Happened at Key West which is based on a true story and is having its world premiere at the Charing Cross theatre felt very much like one of the latter type.
Count Carl Von Cosel (Wade McCollum) is in jail and has a visitor, a reporter from the NY Times. The reporter is here to get Carl’s story, which began some ten years previously when he was washed up on the shores of Key West. Carl was a bit of a dreamer and had been told by his grandmother that he would one day meet the most perfect woman, they would fall in love and be together forever. Soon after arriving in Key West, Carl met Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos (Alyssa Martyn) – Elena – and, as she met his grandmother’s description of the perfect woman, Carl very quickly found himself falling in love with her – even though she was married to a chap called Luis (Guido Garcia Leuches) at the time. Unfortunately, Carl met Elena in the course of his job as a radiographer at the Marine Hospital and quickly found out that Elena had got tuberculosis – which in the 1930s was pretty much a death sentence. Carl was determined to save Elena and, despite the animosity of her sisters Nana (Sophia Lewis) and Celia (Hannah McIver) he became a regular visitor at Elena’s parents’ (Alexander Barria and Mary-Jane Caldwell) house using electrical gadgets he had invented to try and reverse the inevitable. However, in 1931 Elena finally succumbed to the illness. Carl, distraught by grief and determined to fulfill his grandmother’s prophecy that he and his true love would be together forever, refused to accept that Elena’s death was the end of their relationship and so embarked on a course of action so extreme it would shake the entire world.
It Happened in Key West is a strange production that has taken a very difficult subject and tried to be very clever with it. The Book by Jason Huza, Jeremiah James and Jill Santoriello (who also wrote the music and lyrics) has a lot of elements to it. Maybe too many which means there are characters, such as Elena’s parents who are not developed at all so we never get to see their reaction to Carl’s pursuit of Elena. There is also a massive issue around Carl who could easily be perceived as a bit of a crazed stalker, no matter how often Elena tells him she is not interested and wants only to get better so she can be reunited with her husband. It is possible that with all the pressure Carl seemed to be putting on Elena that he may even have hastened her death. The big let down in the book is really the way the story feels rather trivialised. The actual story of Carl and Elena very quickly moves from slightly iffy to downright macabre and I don’t feel this came over well in the production.
Director Marc Robin has a fairly minimal set – designed by Jamie Roderick – to work with and a rear video projection – courtesy of Louise Rhoades-Brown – to set the scene for the actors. The video to me, rather like the show itself, seemed to be too clever and was used a lot to provide a backdrop to the action. Unfortunately, this didn’t always work so, for example, when Carl is inside his home, the video is showing a view of the outside, complete with name board, which to me felt rather patronising, as if I couldn’t work out where the action was taking place without a massive sign telling me. However, apart from that the rest of the production side was pretty good and full marks to costume designer Lisa Zinni for creating the clothing of 1930s Cuba meets America so well.
Musical Director Andrew Hopkins and his orchestra provide the musical accompaniment to some excellent songs – particularly the Act I closer ‘Undying Love’ – which are used to great effect to keep the story moving most of the time. Though the first act really did feel a tad too long. The second act, however, moved at a great pace and really saved the show for me. Performance-wise Wade McCollum was amazingly good. He made Carl a sympathetic figure so that, whilst you may not have liked what he was doing throughout the story, you didn’t end up hating him. Wade also has a striking and powerful voice that sounded amazing and really did justice to the musical numbers. Also on stage with a powerful set of lungs was Alyssa Martyn as Elena. Playing a corpse can’t be easy but when needed, Alyssa really pulled it off. The only quibble I have here is that when alive, she looked far too healthy to have TB and when dead, there were no signs of the inevitable decay that her body would, and indeed did, suffer. I also want to mention Johan Munir in the role of Nana’s husband Mario. Whilst this isn’t the largest role in the show, it was an important one, particularly in the second act and, I have to say Johan’s playing of Mario really made me stop and think about Carl and humanised his actions in a way that was very unexpected.
To end, It happened in Key West is, I think, going to be one of those musicals which really divides people. Both in the interval and afterwards, a couple of us had long and animated conversations about the show and the message it was sending. I’m not going to say on which side I came down but I will say this is an unusual show with some great acting and excellent music. As for its ultimate message, well that one is entirely up to you.
Review by Terry Eastham
Richard Curtis crossed with Tim Burton, funny, shocking and deeply moving, this new American musical will make you re-examine what you believe about the nature of love, loyalty and commitment (either to a person or an asylum!).
It Happened in Key West is inspired by true events that rocked the tiny island of Key West, Florida, in the 1930s. After decades of searching for his dream girl, eccentric scientist Carl finally finds Elena, only to lose the young beauty to the fatal disease of tuberculosis. But for Carl, the eternal optimist, death is only the beginning. He steals Elena’s body from the graveyard and takes her home, embarking on the most ambitious “fixer upper” project in history as he tries to bring his beloved back to life…
Broadway actor Wade McCollum (The Wizard in Wicked) is Carl and Alyssa Martyn is the tragic love of his life, Elena.
Wade McCollum was recently nominated for a Best Actor Lucille Lortel Award starring off-Broadway as Ernest Shackleton in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Alyssa Martyn originated the role of Amelia in the premiere of new musical The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Landor Theatre/St James Theatre Studio).
The other 12 members of the ensemble are: Val Adams, Miguel Angel, Alexander Barria, Mary-Jean Caldwell, Andrea Golinucci, Siwan Henderson, Sophia Lewis, Guido Garcia Lueches, Hannah McIver, Ross McLaren, Johan Munir, Nuno Queimado.
It Happened in Key West has Book, Music and Lyrics By Jill Santoriello, Book and Additional Lyrics by Jason Huza, Book and Original Concept by Jeremiah James. It will be directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, who has staged almost 400 productions across the US, earning multiple awards and nominations.
Producers: Jeremiah James, Rashad V. Chambers, Marylou Rothfuss, Art Lab LLC, John Carroll, Jess Weiss & Cameron Smith.
The rest of the creative team are:
Production Designer Jamie Roderick (Bandstand, A Time To Kill).
Costume Designer Lisa Zinni (Rent, School of Rock, Cats).
Projection Designer Louise Rhoades-Brown (The Life, Southwark Playhouse, Bugsy Malone and Legally Blonde, Leicester Curve).
Sound Designer Andrew Johnson (The Woman in White, The Play That Goes Wrong, West End and Broadway).
Musical Director Andrew Hopkins (Direct From The West End, A Night At The Musicals).
Orchestrations Robert Felstein (The Fantasticks).
UK casting Neil Rutherford.
Charing Cross Theatre
London, WC2N 6NL
Wednesday 11 July – Saturday 22 September, 2018