It Happened in Key West

A review by Susy Brett

The absurd new romantic comedy from Tale of Two Cities creator Jill Santoriello, It Happened In Key West, comes to Charing Cross Theatre for a limited run.

Ever heard of the superhero, Florida Man? It Happened In Key West is based on the real life story of one such Florida Man, Count Carl von Cosel (Wade McCollum). In 1940s Key West, German immigrant doctor Carl von Cosel stood trial for digging up the body of his beloved patient, Elena Hoyos (Alyssa Martin), and conducting a relationship with her body for seven years. It’s a bizarre premise for a musical, but it’s not so bizarre that it might not work.

Musically, It Happened in Key West has a few catchy, funny numbers with good ensemble work. The bigger ballads, such as ‘Undying Love’ are the ones to remember, however. Apart from a few moments between Carl and Elena, there are no real dance numbers. The small stage of the Charing Cross Theatre makes the ensemble cast feel constantly cramped. The stage itself isn’t an issue – it’s workable space, for sure. It’s more than the staging has not tried to hide it, or make the space work for itself. From the offset, this is a major detractor.

It Happened in Key West is billed as a romantic comedy, but it sets an unsure tone. It is too serious to be pure comedy, but the more gentle humour on offer here seem misplaced in a show effectively about necrophilia. The best of the comedic moments is when Carl parades around Elena’s deteriorating body to confused onlookers, but It Happened In Key West is inconsistent in how dark it wants to be. The romance is also questionable. While the direction for Carl and Dream! Elena’s romance is beautiful, the show never manages to pull free of the one-sided nature of the relationship.

There are also pacing issues. The most entertaining segment of the piece is the best known part of the story, where Carl is happily living alongside the corpse of Elena, doting on her every imagined need and taking her on romantic excursions around Key West. This feels disappointingly short, while Carl’s relationship with a living and largely uninterested Elena takes up most of act one, and a very drawn out ending involving a trial and a New York Times reporter means the show fades out rather than comes to grand finale.

The show’s saving grace is the performance of McCollum, who really shines in his role as the eccentric scientist Carl. Carl is clearly quite deranged, though he is very entertaining to watch. McCollum is funny, clever, and moves well, but his vocal performance is his biggest selling point. ‘Undying Love’ is a powerhouse of a tune and performed by McCollum at the end of act one is easily the standout moment of the night.

It Happened In Key West has potential. It’s got an interesting premise for a musical and could be explored further. It needs to be less afraid to step outside the box, for at the moment it seems ironically afraid of offending. There are a couple of great musical numbers, which are catchy enough to last the journey to the tube station home, and a decent cast led by the fantastic McCollum. It just needs a bit more work.

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