It Happened in Key West review at Charing Cross Theatre, London – ‘strange, sardonic, discomfiting’
Musicals theatre is no strangers to strange subjects – but this is something else.
Back in the 1930s a German eccentric living in Florida fell in love with a married woman, who died of tuberculosis. He dug her up and lived with her decomposing body for seven years, replacing her skin with waxed cotton and her eyes with glass.
The kicker is, when Count Carl von Cosel got caught the public took sympathy on him, proclaiming him a charming romantic.
Composer Jill Santoriello has created this odd, but polished musical about the saga, developed in the US and making its world premiere here.
Under layers of jollity and lightness, there’s a deeply sardonic vein of dark humour about possessive love and the acceptance of outsiders. There are decent guitar ballads and a couple of belt-able songs about undying love, plus a lovely number, Black Wedding, threaded through the first act.
The show makes a virtue of its simplicity, like its sharply projected backdrops, combined with Marc Robin’s direction, fairly static and front-on, but adding to the feeling of succinctness in the way that the story is told.
Wade McCollum gives a really strong performance as Von Cosel, a conceited radiologist whose obsession and overbearing attitude make him quite funny but also a total creep. He’s capably supported by Alyssa Martin as his dead lover, whose role is (unsurprisingly) a bit underdeveloped.
But things go to pot with the show’s climax. Rather than sustaining the dark humour and deep irony, it turns all serious and tries to convince us of the romance of the situation. After all that sardonic, gruesome, discomfiting groundwork it’s a bizarre tonal somersault, and undoes a lot of good work.