See how nice I’m trying to be nowadays with my wording? I could have said, like all the other critics, “this is not good”, but no, it’s actually “full of potential”. It’s because I’ve been watching ‘The Good Place’ so much, like over and over (BSE). Whoever said television can’t make you a better person was full of shirt. I want to talk about ‘It Happened in Key West’, even though the London production is now closed, because it has the ability to be a much better show if the creators put more work into it. I really believe that there is nothing but potential for this truly original romantic comedy musical (something that the boards really need right now) to be a success, but that’s if the creators treat the Charing Cross run as a test, learn what worked and what didn’t, and make the necessary improvements without being precious about protecting the work they’ve made thus far. The show needs new songs and a good dramaturg to nail the right tone instead of leaving it the wavering muddle it is at this stage. As it is, it’s not a bad show; it was quite entertaining. But it could actually be good.
Can you imagine the smell.
Carl used lots of perfumes, waxes, varnishes, and other tricks to try to keep the corpse from, well, you know, and I guess some of it worked because SEVEN YEARS but man alive! (or not!) In the show, Carl tied the body to his tandem bicycle and would ride around town with it, pretending it was his new girlfriend. And I guess the townspeople just didn’t look too closely? It’s a weird forking story. I remember listening to a This American Life podcast about this story years ago so I knew what was coming, but hilariously, Husbo did not know the background. At the end of the show, the projection screen displays the photos of the real Carl and Elena. Seeing the old-timey photos of people who weren’t the actors, Husbo said “that makes me nervous that this wasn’t entirely fiction” and so I had to explain to him that no, we actually just saw a weird af musical about actual real-life necrophilia being presented as a love story.
And that’s the main problem with this show, that they sometimes remember to treat this as the bizarrely wacky madness that it is, but mostly they overly romanticize Carl’s actions and treat it as a love story that ‘sadly’ can’t last forever, forgetting I guess that it’s about criminal, horrifying, revolting necrophilia and tomb raiding and lots of other real weird stuff. The biggest issue is that it doesn’t know what tone it wants to strike or how to strike it. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly maudlin, sometimes it’s bizarre and eerie, and sometimes it’s funny. This issue is not a surprise to me at all, since creator Jill Santoriello had the same problem with her Broadway musical “A Tale of Two Cities”. Granted, I got the first rush ticket for the first preview of that show (10 years ago!) and I sat front row center right behind the conductor, who I chatted with for a little, so I had a grand old time. But even in my giddy cloud I could tell that the lyrics I was hearing in the songs just didn’t make sense. I remember one actress with a big booming impressive voice singing about how she wanted to exact revenge for the death of her family…but the lyrics she was singing were angry in the wrong way, saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and so the message didn’t come across properly in the least. The whole show was like that, and that’s why it failed. Here too, the entire tone is unsettled and unclear, and that can kill a show.
I hate to say it because I think it is baller that Santoriello is one of only two women in history to write an entire show – book, music, and lyrics – on their own, but the creative process requires other minds to bounce ideas off of, because then the best ideas are used. In ‘Key West’, she had some book help from Jason Huza and Jeremiah James, but neither of them, from my research, has ever been involved in musical theatre before, so that’s not the best kind of collaborator for something like this show, which requires defined intentions and meticulous efforts in order to work at all, even more than other shows since the right tone is so important here.
And they really didn’t get the tone right. Like I said, sometimes the jokes landed, but often times they merely resulted in a ‘oh, that’s weird. Huh.’ The main proposal was that Carl and The Spirit of Elena actually loved each other, so when he was caught after their long ‘marriage’, it was sad because he couldn’t keep her. In the show, a judge dismisses some charge or other against him because ‘it was clear he really loved her’, and someone in the audience actually woo-hooed. You don’t woo-hoo at some creep getting away with long-term necrophilia!! WHAT ARE PEOPLE TODAY. With all the ghost-wedding (such ‘A Blessing on Your Head, Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov’ vibes in that scene) stuff, the endless reprises of the main “Undying Love” theme, and the sympathy shown towards Carl at the end, it’s clear that the creators wanted this to be a straightforward romance story, and it just can’t be.
The deviations from reality to add something to the story were entirely unnecessary, and caused more harm than good. I mean, did you hear what it’s about? You don’t need to add drama to this. For example, Elena’s sisters were portrayed as one-dimensional villainous evil step-sisters, blocking Carl from treating Elena even though it may have been helping, and instead letting a different ‘doctor’ experiment on her with harmful bleeding techniques in exchange for bribe money. Can these two characters really be that evil that they’d risk their sister’s life for money? They were extremely annoying and unsympathetic, yet it didn’t make me feel any more sympathy for Elena, which I feel was the intention. In fact, the family’s horribleness almost made it seem like Carl should take care of the corpse, which is not the message you want to send.
The cast was overall good, with American Wade McCollum as a strong Carl (and with his beard, eerily looking like the real one) and Alyssa Martyn as the lovely Elena. Both were good singers and seemed to be really committing to this material, so I wish it better served them. My favorite was Johan Munir as Mario, Elena’s brother in law who was sympathetic to Carl. He seemed to be the only family member with any kind of common sense so that might be why I liked him. And although the score had a couple catchy tunes, and some hilarious and clever lyrics, they need more of them.
With more work, I think it would succeed best with a purely comical take, because when it’s funny, it’s really funny, and with more precise direction a lot of the lines that were clearly intended to be funny would actually…be funny. A comical route would be especially apt because the story is absolutely bonkers, and trying to sentimentalize it too fervently renders it toothless and, more importantly, makes me uncomfortable. This is not a story to portray as a sweet love story; it’s not one, and trying to make it one is disturbing. And that’s one of the biggest missteps of the show as it is now. Instead of clearly showing that Carl is off his rocker and – lest we forget – guilty of a pretty significant crime, the entire ending paints him with an overly sympathetic brush, with all characters – including the judge, I mean come on – wishing that they could give the rotting corpse back to him so he could go on with his happy love story. Playing it this way, the show has trouble staying together or feeling at cohesive, kind of like Elena’s body after seven years, I imagine.