Despite strong casting and an effective production design, I found it impossible to overlook It Happened in Key West‘s unashamed romanticisation of the obsessive and necrophilic tendencies of a real man who died just 66 years ago.
It’s in the name. It really happened, and the producers want you to know about it. Black-and-white photos of the macabre real-life duo that It Happened in Key West (fittingly) attempts to resurrect are projected upstage at the end of the curtain call. He, Carl von Cosel, was an idiosyncratic German doctor – with an altogether troublesome obsession for a married woman 32 years his younger. She, Elena Milagro de Hoyos, was a Cuban-American girl who died from tuberculosis at 22 – unbeknownst that her body would be illegally and non-consensually dug up and kept as a sort of doll/companion by von Cosel until he was discovered seven years later. Bizarre and unearthly, of course, and what should surely (contemporarily) be considered a true-crime story.
What also really happened – is someone deemed this series of events appropriate to turn into a musical. And not just any (we’re not talking about a London Road here), but a show which unashamedly romanticises the obsessive and necrophilic tendencies of our protagonist as the second act progresses.
Sorry to be taking this so seriously but wouldn’t it be deeply disrespectful not to? The events depicted really happened to a somewhat financially vulnerable Latino girl and her family, in a first-world country not unlike our own, less than 80 years ago. So as Wade McCollum, basically clutching the deceased body (and in an albeit impressive baritone) tells the audience: ‘I’d feel sorry for you if you never feel this way [about someone]’, I have to put my hands up and say I do not feel remotely comfortable. Is the audience expected to be OK with Carl von Cosel unambiguously being positioned – not to be particularly troubled or troubling – but a well-meaning guy (synonymous with classic musical theatre protagonists like West Side Story‘s Tony) simply overcome with endearment. It’s surely in very bad taste.
I’m not saying other musicals are innocent of romanticising horror. Miss Saigon audiences are, of course, expected to blissfully overlook the fact that the ‘relationship’ they watch blossom between white American G.I. and adolescent, trafficked Vietnamese prostitute starts with an act of statutory rape. Kim’s first two-words in the entire production, “I’m 17”, do nothing but affirm this – yet it’s portrayed as a ‘tragic love story of epic proportions’. Don’t get me wrong – that’s seriously f#%$ed up too – but is It Happened in Key West not a whole new level of ‘exploitative’, by nature of it not skipping over the disturbing realities but making them the primary focus?
It pains me to have to be so critical of the show’s foundations, because actually a lot of its more surface-level components are refreshingly strong. The cast are more than competent: both the ensemble’s energy and vocals are impressive, notable comic acting abilities are demonstrated by all (if one puts the actual implications of the content aside) – and both McCollom and Martyn (as Elena) demonstrate extraordinary voices in belty ballad after ballad. Jamie Roderick’s production design is also pretty neat: a pleasingly fantastical and consistently well-lit set which reminded me of the Old Vic’s inventive Lorax.
It’s also regrettable that the subject matter (or at least, portrayal of it) seems so misfired and becomes so mawkish – because I do think the show knows a lot about love (in a way that von Cosel probably didn’t). The amount of it, poured into the production by the creative team in particular, is palpable. It Happened in Key West feels like a passion project, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. But I suppose I theorise that the core team got so caught up in the detail of the astonishing story, and the ambition of developing an original musical from scratch, that they may have struggled to take a step back and reassess whether the source material was right for the format. It’s a massive shame, in my opinion, that the same creative team hadn’t worked on a totally different story (because I really do think that could have potential) – but in this instance, I unfortunately just found the dramatisation of this content, particularly in such a quaint format, to be so problematic that no directorial, design or casting decision could really win me back over.