Reviewed by Nathan Deane
A classic love story that involves forbidden lovers, tuberculosis, and grave-robbing. Honestly, what’s not to love?
It Happened In Key West tells the very true story of “Count” Carl Tanzler, a German man who lived as a doctor in Key West, Florida in the 1930’s. He had said that when he was a young boy, he dreamed of a girl that would be the woman he marries. He finds that in Key West in the form of Elena Hoyos, but ends up diagnosing her with tuberculosis. She is already married, but he showers her with gifts (and even proposes, to which she declines). When she eventually dies, he builds a mausoleum for her and eventually…steals her body and lives with it. For seven years.
Not traditional musical theatre inspiration, and being familiar with the story before seeing the show means I was extremely intrigued to how they’d pull it off.
Penning the book, music and lyrics, Jill Santoriello does her best to turn the macabre true story into a beautiful romance. The music is lush, with extremely clever lyrics and a book that turns Tanzler into a wisecracking romantic. Santoriello twists some truths of the story to play in favour of romance (I particularly liked the changing of Tanzler dragging Elena’s corpse out of the cemetery in a toy wagon to a variety of different ghosts and spirits marrying them in the graveyard). In the true court case, Tanzler was medically proven sane. The book does its best to show that he wasn’t crazy, and it worked. There were moments which I found myself tearing up, which was a change from most versions of the story where they try to make Tanzler look like a psycho.
Marc Robin‘s direction and minimal choreography worked for the small stage of the Charing Cross theatre. Wooden crates were moved and stacked to create locations, aided by projections designed by Louise Rhoades-Brown.
Wade McCollum takes on the role of Carl. His comical, yet creepy, performance was perfect. He plays Carl from the moment he first meets Elena up to the day he dies, which McCollum plays wonderfully. In particular, his act one solo “Undying Love” was beautifully done.
Playing Elena Hoyos, both dead and alive, is Alyssa Martin. The innocence of Elena was shown perfectly in both acts, firstly accepting Carl to try and “cure her tuberculosis” (there was no cure for TB at the time), and in act two as a dead woman, singing beautifully “I Feel Loved”.
It Happened In Key West is definitely a musical to suit all tastes, from the classic musical theatre vibe of the score to the macabre but comic book. It’ll be hard to find a better new musical comedy this year.