It Happened In Key West at the Charing Cross Theatre
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews this true story of love, loss and a dead body.
As the sweltering heat of London comes to a slightpause, it’s a joy to sit in the Charing Cross Theatre and be greeted with a set and design that mimics a breezy beach town. As the audience enters the auditorium, a guitarist plays on the stage that is warmly lit by a combination of orange and blue lights. Strings of small lights cross above the audience and the stage is framed by a thin, coarse material. Audiences are not prepared, then, for the macabre (and true!) tale of It Happened In Key West, written by Jill Santoriello in collaboration with Jason Huza and Jeremiah James, and directed by Marc Robin. All promotional material for this new musical asks, ‘Do you believe in undying love?’ It’s certainly true that It Happened In Key West takes this question in surprising and unexpected directions, but a difficult and bloated script hinders the show from truly achieving the power it clawingly desires.
Set in the 1930s, Key West follows radiologist Carl Tanzler (Wade McCollum) and his story of undying love for Elena (Alyssa Martyn). After dreaming of Elena at the age of twelve, Carl spent his life travelling and searching for her to spend the rest of his life with her. After thirty years, upon taking up the position of radiographer at the local hospital in Key West, the two meet, but Elena is diagnosed with tuberculosis and dies. What follows are Carl’s continuing attempts to maintain Elena’s cadaver, which proves an unexpected and comically brilliant twist, proffering a completely different take on the narrative tale of unrequited love. In short, it’s the paradisal setting of Mamma Mia,the plotline of Moulin Rouge and the questionable bodily bricolage of Frankenstein.
What emerges is a show that is clearly pushing towards the comedy of the second act – the opening of the second act sees Carl biking around the town with his bride hooked up behind him to the bemused looks of the townspeople – but the process to get there can feel jumpy and underdeveloped. After Elena’s diagnosis her husband, Luis, nonchalantly leaves her on the grounds that she is contagious, thus allowing Carl to become her love interest. A doctor pays Elena’s family to not let Carl treat her any more, but exactly why he desires to do so is never understood. In a related vein, other than vague gestures of poverty the motivation for why Elena’s sisters are willing to sabotage her treatment for financial reimbursement does not allow them to move beyond caricatures.
There is, however, a warm touch to It Happened In Key West that is achieved mainly through the songs and performances of individual actors. Wade McCollum is charismatic and likeable, his slight moments of madness hidden away by wry comments about Elena’s husband, his methods of treatment or devoted love. Strong vocals are matched by Martyn, whose simultaneously delicate and powerful singing really makes her an attractive love interest (though she painfully doesn’t have many lines). Notably, despite the passage of time, Martyn remains the same visually throughout the play, as the effects of her illness and later death are never noted by make up (though one gag is used where her arm falls off). However, this maintains the continued suggestion that beauty and love are in the eyes of the beholder, and, with the lack of attention to the physical decompositions of the body the audience is directed to see her as Carl does, which is both endearing and a little disgusting. In this, the weird material framing the stage takes on a deathly, gauze-like look that is uncomfortably reminiscent of decaying flesh, and thus offers the perfect contrast to the comedy on stage. Though their characters’ actions are misguided, Sophia Lewis and Hannah McIver provide comical turns as Elena’s sisters, and the rest of the cast is in undeniably good voice.
The songs of It Happened In Key West are enjoyable, if slightly forgettable. Carl’s anthem of ‘Undying Love’ soars, as does Elena’s ‘I Feel Loved’. The opening number to the second act, ‘Everything’s Right With The World’ quirkily sets the tone for the darkly humorous narrative, but it is a shame it takes so long to get there. If it weren’t for the dedication, charm and commitment of the cast and production, It Happened In Key West would feel much weaker, but I can’t help but question this dependence for the show to feel vaguely successful. This is certainly a spirited production, but one feels as though it would be more enjoyable to watch it on the beach after several Piña Coladas. Maybe then this interpretation of undying love wouldn’t feel so stiff.
It Happened In Key West is at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 18thAugust, 2018.
Feature photograph: Darren Bell