Book, Music & Lyrics: Jill Santoriello, Jason Huza, Jeremiah James
Director: Marc Robin
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Expressing true love in fiction is usually fairly cliched – hearts, flowers, big declarations – but some of the more unusual protestations of eternal affection have involved graveyards. In Hamlet, both Laertes and Hamlet jump into the grave of Ophelia, clutching the dead girl while insisting they cared most for her, while one of the most romantic heroes of all time, Heathcliff, exhumed the corpse of his beloved Cathy to hold her in his arms one more time. So, the fact this also happened in real life shouldn’t be such a surprise.
German scientist Carl Tanzler is shipwrecked on the island of Key West after years fruitlessly looking for the perfect woman and gets a job at the hospital. By chance, a married patient name Elena with terminal tuberculosis turns out to be “the one” but Carl’s wayward attempts to cure her fail. Refusing to let go, two years after her funeral Carl brings Elena home and tries to bring her back to life.
Governed by tropical storms and a mix of north and south American culture, the Florida Keys seems like the perfect setting for a fantastical tale of love and fate. While Humphrey Bogart was trying to outwit some gangsters over on Key Largo, Key West is the location of this hard-to-believe true story which Jill Satoriello, Jason Huza and Jeremiah James have turned into the very silly musical It Happened in Key West.
On the surface it’s a reasonably straightforward story about two people who refused to be separated by death, and the unarguable madness of Carl Tanzler left alone without his wife. But while the writers badge this as a ‘romantic musical comedy’, some of the information given in the first half about their relationship is rather troubling. Hardly a mutual passion, Elena rejects Carl’s advances, remaining faithful to her husband even after he abandons her to her illness.
Far from charmingly devoted, Carl’s obsessive behaviour is vastly inappropriate, overwhelming to the point of scary as he starts to stalk this poor woman. On her deathbed, Elena says she wishes she could have loved him as he wanted, but her lack of romantic feeling for him makes her post-death transformation in the Second Act where she returns as a ghost/spirit/dream a bit uneasy. It doesn’t help that the character of Elena (Alyssa Martyn) is essentially a Disney princess, devoid of any personality or agency, waiting to be rescued by a Prince – or at least a crazy scientist with a corpse fetish. Surely in the post-MeToo era female leads, especially ones based on real people, deserve more than this.
As a whole, It Happened in Key West has a good mix of full cast numbers and big lead solos, with Santoriello’s music referencing Caribbean rhythms as well as more traditional musical theatre approaches. The most memorable number is Undying Love, the finale to Act One, reprised later, but Santoriello uses the full cast tunes like Elena From Town to move the timeframe along swiftly. The co-created book makes the most of an outlandish story with lots of humour, yet the wider cast are little more than slightly cliched sketches of Cuban life with uneven accents, and although it is originally set-up as Carl’s flashback, the writers forget about this in the middle and add some additional narrators.
This is a seven-year passion project for the creators, and thanks to some sterling work and incredible vocals Wade McCollum makes Carl by far the most interesting character and a study in human delusion. It’s light-hearted fun, and certainly proves that truth is stranger than fiction, but this bonkers tale of astral love would be slightly easier to swallow if the heroine’s consent was more clearly conveyed when she was alive.
Runs until 18 August 2018 | Image: Darren Bell