In Conversation With: JILL SANTORIELLO (It Happened In Key West)

Jill Santoriello is a writer, composer and lyricist whose newest musical, It Happened In Key West, has recently opened in London at the Charing Cross Theatre. Santoriello also penned the award-winning musical adaptation of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. It Happens In Key West tells the story of Carl Tanzler, an eccentric German man living in Key West, Florida, in the thirties, who was found living with the body of Elena Hoyos, his true love but also a young woman who passed away seven years earlier.

Read my five-star review of It Happened In Key West here. 

What interested you about the story of Carl Tanzler and writing a Carl Tanzler musical?

I had never heard of this story until my producer and collaborator, Jeremiah James, pitched me the idea several years ago. It immediately appealed to me in an over-the-top gothic romantic sort of way. Jeremiah was familiar with my work on “A Tale of Two Cities” so I knew he had to be envisioning a musical that was somewhat romantic as well. But he couldn’t have known that I also have a slightly twisted, dark, demented side that was just as drawn to the potential for black comedy as it was drawn to the grand romance. The good news was Jeremiah didn’t want the show to be all one thing or the other either. We shared the view that as romantic and sincere as Carl’s intentions may have been, keeping and preserving a decaying body around the house just had to present certain challenges that were ripe for comedy.

Why did you choose to portray Tanzler as a romantic rather than a psychotic body-snatcher as many have?

Jeremiah, Jason Huza (co-book writer) and I were never interested in doing a dark, grisly horror story. That’s just not how we saw it, though it can be interpreted that way and has been portrayed that way in other versions of the story. But that’s what appealed to us frankly – taking what some people thought they knew – a creepy tale of body-snatching and obsession – and turning it into a silly, absurd, uplifting romance. We made a choice early on to take Carl at his word and tell the story from his point of view. And actually, his accounts were not greatly contradicted by the newspaper and legal accounts of the time, so he seemed to be the most reliable first-hand narrator for the show. And he literally ends his diary with the most optimistic, adoring words of gratitude for having known Elena and having had the honour of taking care of her as long as he did. So, when you read that, it’s kind of hard to not appreciate the romantic side of him and what he did. And it’s impossible to deny that this man truly loved this woman – as they say – to the bitter end.

What were the most challenging parts of the true story to adapt to fit the style of the musical?

Well even though Carl wrote a rather detailed diary account of the events, they didn’t automatically “sing” or lend themselves to being dramatized. In fact, sometimes his notes were a little too scientifically detailed and clinical, so we did take our fair share of dramatic license, inventing some scenes and conflicts as needed. The hardest (and most fun) part of writing a show like this is figuring out what to approach as heartfelt and what to approach tongue-in-cheek through the dark comedy filter.

Whilst researching for the musical, did you meet anyone who was around in Key West when the discovery was made?

It’s funny that you ask that because my collaborators actually met a woman in Key West who was alive at the time that Carl was discovered living with Elena’s body. So this person literally attended Elena’s second wake and viewing in 1940 when she was a little girl. They had a long conversation with this woman, whose mother was best friends with Elena, and the amazing thing was she literally corroborated our “imagined” version of events! In other words, we had written scenes where Elena showed that she really cared for Carl whilst she was alive, loved him and asked him to take care of her body when she passed away – and this woman told us that yes she did. And also that the people of Key West, people who actually knew them, saw the story exactly the way that we saw it – not as something creepy or horrible but as an expression of how much this man loved this woman and the lengths he went to to keep his promise to her. I was particularly touched by the fact that when the song “Undying Love” was played for this lady, she actually broke down weeping because she said it was how they all felt about the story.

Are there any other true crime stories you’d like to adapt to the stage?

Honestly, I never thought of this as much of a crime. I mean, the charges against him were grave robbing and desecration of a tomb. Well, he had paid for Elena’s funeral, paid for and built the mausoleum that she was kept in – all with the consent of her family. And if you happen to believe in an afterlife and spirit communication, which I do, if the dead girl you love comes to you from beyond the grave and asks you to get her out of the cemetery and take her home with you, well what else are you supposed to do? So where’s the crime in that? You can question whether he was delusional to think he’d been visited by a spirit – but no-one who knew him ever doubted he believed that to be the case. So I believe he truly thought he was honouring Elena’s wishes and I can’t fault him for that.

Where would you ideally like to stage It Happened In Key West in the future?

London has been great and it’s my favourite place on the planet so this has been a wonderful experience premiering the show here. And I’m definitely planning on coming back again on coming back again before the end of the run. But I would love to see it done in the U.S as well: in New York (where I live), of course, and especially in Florida and/or Key West. I think the story of undying love and how tough it is to say goodbye is pretty universal so I’m hopeful we’ll eventually find an audience in many places.

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I’d like to really thank Jill Santoriello for agreeing to be interviewed. You can find more information about her as a writer and her shows here. 

It Happens In Key West runs at the Charing Cross Theatre in London until the 18th of August 2018. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

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REVIEW: It Happened In Key West @ Charing Cross Theatre

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.

5stars

IT HAPPENED IN KEY WEST runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 18th August. Tickets and more information here.

REVIEW: The Producers @ Ferneham Hall

Reviewed by Nathan Deane

The Producers is an iconic comedy musical based off of the 1969 film of the same name written by Mel Brooks. South Downe Musical Society have returned to Ferneham Hall in Fareham to tackle the challenge of producing the over the top, lavish musical written by Brooks himself.

The Producers tells the story of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, two theatre producers scheming to produce “the worst show ever written” and take all the money and travel to Rio. However, the show they produce, Springtime For Hitler, is ultimately a success and the fraudsters are caught out.

Taking the roles of Bialystock and Bloom are Matt Sackman and Sam Townsend. Sackman was excellent as Bialystock, a scheming ex-King of Broadway. Sackman is funny in the role, and his act two solo “Betrayed” was a highlight of the show. Townsend was perfectly cast as Leo Bloom, giving an awkwardly cute performance with lush vocals and comedic delivery of lines.

Director Jane Pegler had a tough job of bringing the book and music to life without copying too much from the film or previous productions of the show. And whilst I did see some similarities between the movie, Pegler did her best to keep the staging fresh and inventive.

The standout performance of the night goes to Kimberley Harvey as Ulla. An extremely funny performance, with strong vocals and a convincing Swedish accent throughout.

It was a shame that the sound levels weren’t balanced properly as the ensemble often seemed to be drowned out by the pitch-perfect orchestra (who were West End standard, may I add.)

The Producers was a great night out guaranteed to entertain anyone from die-hard theatre lovers to die-hard Mel Brooks fans.

4stars

Review: Heathers @ The Other Palace

Reviewed by Charlotte White

When I managed to get a must have ticket to Heathers I was extremely happy. Of course I had heard of this show but I didn’t know much about it at all, so I went in to it with a very open mind.

For anyone who is also unfamiliar with the plot of Heathers, it’s the story of Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, Heather Duke and Veronica Sawyer. As a student of Westerburg high life is difficult for Veronica, but not for the Heathers. So Veronica decides to make a deal with the Heathers to become popular. This new friendship seems to be going well, that is until new kid on the block Jason ‘JD’ Dean gets involved and things start to unravel from there.

Directed by Andy Fickman, the hugely talented cast put on quite the show. Starting with the leading role of Veronica, Carrie Hope Fletcher gave a gripping performance. After seeing her in Les Miserables as Eponine, this character was quite different and allowed the audience to see a different side to her. Carrie’s voice was certainly strong enough for the role and her portrayal of the character was everything you’d want as a ‘newbie’ watching the show- enticing, emotional and humorous. I enjoyed the comedic side to her performance and it seems the rest of the audience did too. I felt a sense of pride as I watched her and that she too felt proud of the role, exuding body confidence and empowerment to all us young women out there.

The three iconic Heathers played by Jodie Steele (Heather Chandler), Sophie Isaacs (Heather McNamara) and T’shan Williams (Heather Duke) did not disappoint. Their vocals worked extremely well together and all three seemed to have a good connection on stage. I feel Jodie really came into her own in this role and the two solos by T’Shan and Sophie were both performed brilliantly. They all nailed the comedy but also the emotion of the piece as well.

I was utterly captivated by Jamie Muscato as Jason Dean. He gave such a compelling performance throughout the entirety of the show, but I loved how the character developed as it went on. He was convincing the whole way through and I thoroughly enjoyed his interpretation of the role.

Jenny O’Leary gave such a touching performance as Veronica’s best friend Martha Dunnstock and Rebecca Lock was fabulous as Ms Flemming! Dominic Andersen and Chris Chung played the rather comedic duo of Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly. They gave the show a lighter feel and had me laughing the whole way through.

As I was new to the show (unlike the several ‘Heather Chandlers’ in the audience who were clearly familiar with it), I had nothing to compare it to. Perhaps some hardcore fans may not agree with all the decisions made but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is quite a hype surrounding the show so I think it is good to come in with an open mind as there is a new song and new staging. Also, there are some very adult/dark themes explored during the show so it may not be for everyone. Having said this, I think it is done in a tasteful and fairly lighthearted way.

Did I hear the people sing? The Other Palace is quite a small venue which helped, but the cast were excellent in their diction and clarity both during their songs and dialogue. The volume was a comfortable level and I had no trouble at all hearing what was going on.

In summary, Heathers is a sexy, twisted, seductive tale that will give you a rush which is likely to ‘Freeze Your Brain’. Combine this with a soundtrack you’re bound to be singing for days on end after you leave, it’s a winner in my opinion. Even if you’re a bit unsure, try and grab a ticket if one comes up. I myself was quite surprised I liked it so much, I guess you could colour me stoked.

5stars

REVIEW: Island Song @ Davenport Theatre Loft

All Things Broadway, a much beloved Facebook group, presented their first full-length show. The theatre was filled with family, friends and supportive theatre lovers. One of the producers, Eliyahu Kheel, addressed the audience, explaining in a short and heartwarming way the long road that lead to this production.

Island Song presents the overlapping lives of serval busy New Yorkers. The story follows 5 core characters, with actors doubling up to play minor characters. The show offered many opportunities to show off the actors’ vocal range, to my delight. The songs that bookend the show rang out through the theatre with the strong harmonies of a powerful cast.

The staging was interesting and the director, Keira Todd, impressively utilized the space and light of the Loft. The lighting stood out, as the twinkle lights around the room pulsed in time with the emotions and climax of each song. The small theatre space created an intimate atmosphere, and the show felt tailored uniquely for me. Focusing on romance and making it in the big city, the themes of the show resonated with me.

Each of the 5 characters struggled with living in the city and found strength in different ways. The pop songs illustrated the nuanced issues the characters were facing. Will (Mathew Billman) charismatically courted his girl-next-door, Jordan (Stephanie Michele Toups), and Shoshana (Kira Leiva) was just looking for love in all the wrong places. Caroline (Anna Harris) struggled with a purpose. The standout, however, was Cooper (Darren Cementina) who, through his story as a struggling artist, managed to give me goosebumps with his superb vocals.

Although there was a dense amount of songs, and there were some technical issues with the microphones, this show was undoubtedly heartwarming. The community produced show is representative of the great artistic creativity that can be produced with the faith and support of loved ones. Empowering and touching, this production showed me how much heart can be woven into a single show.

3 stars

Tickets for the performance 6/26 can be purchased at the door20180619_212412

REVIEW: The Fourth Wall @ A.R.T

The fourth wall is an interesting idea for a show, it questions the formatting of plays, of life and of politics. The one-act provided some intellectual stimulation. The show focuses on a husband and wife who are at ends about the arrangement of their furniture. Peggy (Ann Marie Morelli) insists on keeping the fourth wall of their living room empty, which concerns her husband Roger (Stephen Drabiki).

The set design for the show was interesting, and a focal point for the plot. Often the characters address the benefits of a set for a play and are eerily aware of their roles in the show at hand. The constant reminder that the audience was watching a play did not necessarily have the desired effect, as it felt forced rather than enticing.

The gimmick of the play is the self-awareness of each character, and how frequently they refer to their lives being a play. This self-awareness could have developed into something interesting and powerful. Instead, I found it to be slow and convoluted. Characters acknowledge for the majority of the show on the fact they were in a play, rather than subtly and slowly coming to a realization.

Roger, Peggy, Julia (Pamela Sabaugh), and Floyd (Nicholas Viselli) weave their way through increasingly ridiculous plot driven by a need to acknowledge their presence is confide within a play. The plot, which centred around Peggy’s need for a blank fourth wall, fell flat. Some comments about the fourth wall were insightful. The perplexing wall can and often represents the hollowness of humanity, which at times during the show is a powerful image. However, the depiction of human connection and the depths it requires is quickly drowned out by forced puns, silly jokes, and dry dialogue.

Including an actress who is wheelchair bound and an actor who is hard of hearing felt like a profound choice. Julia stood her ground as a central character to the story and continued developing alongside her co-stars. This casting felt powerful, and despite the show feeling flat, the addition of all-ability casting made a significant impact on me.

There were several songs sprinkled throughout the play. The songs served little purpose, other than to act as transitionary moments between scenes, as confessed by the characters themselves. It seems these songs were there to add time to the show. It was disappointing that there were no other benefits to the songs, those would-be soulful moments were wasted.

The language of this show was superfluous, as the characters endlessly overused theatrical terminology and clichés. Despite what the author may think, acknowledging theatre clichés does not make those clichés permissible. The Fourth Wall fell victim to an inordinate number of theatrical clichés, which surmounted to a slow and dull show.

The back wall covered in mirrors was an excellent set design, the actors and the audience are both reflected back upon themselves. As a show about breaking through, it was poignant to watch actors from all angles, and to see yourself on a stage the characters acknowledged were real.

The interesting end doesn’t quite make up for the dull start and relentingly long middle. This one act show develops slowly and misses the mark. There is a clear and strong heart to it, however, and the messages that motivate the characters are powerful. Although not entirely enjoyable, there were interesting and thoughtful aspects of The Fourth Wall.

2-stars

 

REVIEW: Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty @ Theatre 511

Reviewed by Annie Zeleznikow

Before the show began, a collection of middle eastern, French and South Asian songs played as the small crowd filled up the theatre. there was a cabaret-like set up close to the stage, with small tables and chairs. There was a life-size paper-mache member of the press propped at the back of the audience. I was nervous coming into the show, as theatre is ordinarily my escape from reality, and this shows only promise was to include the antics of the 45th United States President (Ezra Barnes).

The show starts with Donald telling his young son, Baron, a night-time story. It was a classic story, filled with graphic descriptions of ISIS beheadings. The show continues on this path of crude and overwhelming themes, as Donald becomes violent with his youngest child. This show was not quite funny, rather it was overwhelmed by silliness and left me feeling a bit uneasy.

Unlike SNL and The Late Show with Seth Meyers, Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty pushes aside topical humour and interesting news stories for a darker and more confusing storyline. In reviewing the notes, I took during the show, I am unable to discern a coherent story. The show continues with disturbing images and jokes that diminish any humour or clever observations within the show.

There were several one-liners included in the show, which were meant to be funny but fell flat. Trump, in his imagined HBO special claims that the queen was so excited by his show that “she started menstruating again”. This crude humour adds nothing to the play, and although clearly trying to entertain the audience with a realistic tweet-like line, I am left with a foul taste in my mouth.

I found that ultimate this was a show that believes it is making an intelligent point while only confusing and convoluting reality. It is a strange collection of scenes that develops no singular plot or theme. The vulgarity and harshness of this show did little justice to the possible intelligence hidden beneath some jokes.

2-stars

Do you HEAR the people sing?

Written by Charlie White

So, I recently went to the theatre and unfortunately…I struggled to pick up the dialogue and therefore missed parts of the story. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the actors didn’t wear mics (as it was a play) and they had extremely strong accents. This then sparked the idea for a blog focusing on the sound/hearing aspect of shows.

I myself am a hearing aid wearer and have had problems with my ears since being a child, so this is quite an important subject to me (especially when it comes to hearing in a theatre) as I’m sure it is to most theatregoers.

The majority of the time, most shows are pretty good at making sure things are at a suitable volume and of course there is the well know lesson of projection and ‘making sure your voice hits the back of the theatre’ (I assume…is this still a thing now?)

However, there are times when maybe the music can be a little overpowering or perhaps the characters might be deep in conversation and you can’t quite catch everything they are saying.

If any of you reading this are familiar with hearing aids or anything along those lines you’ll know most theatres now have what’s called the loop system, which if your hearing aid has it activated you can connect to it and the sound will be sent straight through to your hearing aid (I’m also an Audiologist so fit hearing aids for a living).

 

 

 

Some of the shows I’ve seen recently have varied a lot hearing wise. Firstly, the Ferryman. As much I loved the show and was extremely shocked by the ending (you have to be there), I did have a bit of trouble hearing it all. Yes, this is the play I mentioned at the beginning and I’m afraid I did struggle at times to understand what was being said. Despite this, you do get used to it by the end and I managed to follow the gist of it. My advice if you’re going to watch this is maybe trying to have a little idea of what it is about beforehand and have your concentrating caps on when you see it!

Another show I recently saw was the Cursed Child. I am pleased to say most of the actors in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child spoke very clearly and the sound was pretty good throughout the show! Occasionally if the characters were having an argument or got a bit carried away with emotion certain things might not come across quite so clearly.

Overall, musicals tend to be at an appropriate level in order for us to take in the beautiful scores or talented voices so generally, I’m sure a lot of people will manage fine. For those who do not or those who are interested in knowing a bit more about this side of things, there will be a short section on the sound/hearing quality included in our upcoming reviews. The aim is to hopefully help and guide people who may struggle so they know what to expect when going to see a particular show. So please keep an eye out for that in the future and be sure to hear the people sing!

Review: Soap @ Underbelly Festival, Southbank

Reviewed by Charlie White

CAUTION! Be prepared to get soaked! Enough to wet anyone’s appetite for talent, Soap at the Underbelly Festival is a wonderfully bizarre mixture of skills ranging from acrobatics to opera.

Directed by Markus Pabst and Maximilian Rambaek, the show is a variety of acts all linked together by one simple item…a bathtub! It starts off with 5 rather toned performers starting their day in the bath accompanied by the beautiful operatic voice of Jennifer Lindshield. You may think that circus acts and opera might not mix, but you’d be surprised.  It isn’t opera in the conventional sense, in fact, it’s used rather unconventionally which contributed to the comedy of the piece. I think the contrast added to the show in a very effective way and added a sense of feeling to the performance.

We were then entertained by the comedic stylings of Marie-Andrée Lemaire as she picked a random member of the audience to assist on stage and have a bit of circus-themed fun. There was more comedy in it than I thought there would be which was good because let’s face it, we all need a good laugh now and again. There was also the unique skill of towel spinning which was performed without fault by Vanessa Alvarez. She had impeccable timing and strength spinning towels on both hands and feet. However, towels were not the only thing she juggled, a guitar was also thrown into the mix as she balanced a juggled it rather impressively again with her hands and feet.

 

A large part of the show consisted of beautiful acrobatics from the amazing Lena Ries, Anton Belyakov, Daniel Leo Stern, Mortiz Haase and Adam Endris Yemam. There was a particularly outstanding trio by Daniel, Lena and Vanessa who managed to tell a story just through their elegant and passionate movements. They performed with such feeling and intensity, the emotion could be felt throughout the audience. Another emotional performance was a solo form of Anton which included an impressive acrobatic routine in a bathtub but this time it was filled with water. The addition of the water made it even more visually stunning.  I also have to give a special mention to the trapeze number by Mortiz. He quite literally flew over the audience and had us on the edge of our seats with the more daring tricks he executed.

These slightly more intense moments were juxtaposed with lighthearted sections which gave the show a good balance. For example, Adam amused us with his remarkable juggling skills. He had the audience completely in awe of his juggling, not 3, not 4 but 7 balls! There were also some cleverly conducted comedic tricks among this vast array of incredible acts.

Soap is an original and unique show with innovative and creative acts which are sure to be enjoyed by all, whatever your taste.

5stars

Soap runs at Underbelly Festival until 17 June 2018. For tickets and more information, click here.

REVIEW: SeatPlan

Written by Nathan Deane
Contributions from Charlotte White

A useful tool for UK theatregoers, SeatPlan is a website that takes the average auditorium plan and makes it interactive, allowing users to add photos from the seats and leave reviews of their seats. Users earn rewards from each photo uploaded and can also enter competitions and buy tickets via the website.

Despite a quite confusing interface, the tool is extremely helpful to the average theatregoer, if you’re based in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Manchester or Oxford. Whilst SeatPlan isn’t limited to those 6 areas, it doesn’t go much further than them, leaving people outside of those areas with local touring theatres in the dark of where to sit.

The site only has the major theatres, so you can’t get seating maps for some Off-West End venues such as Southwark Playhouse or Greenwich Theatre, which limits the usage to some theatre-goers.

The rewards are enticing, you earn 40p for each photo you add to the site and the pennies go towards theatre tokens – an exciting reward for any theatre fan. For an extra 40p, make sure you take a photo of your ticket stub!

The new, updated interface makes it hard to find the interactive seat plan, a feature I couldn’t find and had to ask my Facebook friends to help me find it when the update happened. Nevertheless, now I know where it is I can use the tool whenever I want.

The seat reviews are informative, usually accompanied by photos of the view and star ratings of the comfort, view, legroom and the show itself, providing a deep enough insight so that when you book your ticket you’ll know whether the seat is right for you.

The ticket booking system is easy enough, with discounted prices scattered around and easy to use seating charts.

I use the SeatPlan site quite frequently and, although it has a few minor issues, it’s a brilliant tool that anyone who is able to access a London theatre should use, and with the rewards system it’s a great way to fund your theatre-going!

4stars