Review: It Happened in Key West (Charing Cross Theatre)

Broadway star Wade McCollum plays eccentric scientist Carl in Marc Robin’s production

Wade McCollum and Alyssa Martyn
Wade McCollum and Alyssa Martyn
© Darren Bell

The old adage 'truth is stranger than fiction' springs to mind when considering the real-life story that inspired this new American musical: German immigrant Count Carl von Cosel failed to cure his beloved Elena's terminal tuberculosis by electrocution then ended up living for seven years in some sort of matrimonial bliss with her decomposing corpse. If there has ever been a weirder premise for a toe-tapping musical comedy then I can't think of it. Anybody who saw the legendary Deep South executioner tuner The Fields Of Ambrosia during its brief 1996 run will have an idea of what creatives Jill Santoriello, Jeremiah James and Jason Huza are up to here: this has a similar inconsistency of tone as it attempts to marry peppy numbers to a startlingly morbid central story.

That tonal uncertainty is a huge problem: the script isn't wacky enough or put over with sufficient chutzpah to really land as comedy while the characters are too sketchily drawn to connect with on any sort of emotional level, despite composer-lyricist Santoriello's predilection for sub-Lloyd Webber power ballads or sunny company numbers that sound like off-cuts from a Latin 42nd Street. The music is reasonably pleasant to listen to but seldom lingers in the memory, and is scuppered by ghastly, clichéd, anything-for-a-rhyme lyrics, some of which provoked guffaws of unsolicited mirth from audience members at the performance I attended.

The storytelling is all over the place: one minute the creepy Count is cycling around Key West with his dead bride strapped to him, casually dropping the odd limb in the street – like ya do – and the next he is in prison being psychologically assessed. Of course it might be easier to follow if we were ever given a valid reason to care about any of these characters. The overriding feeling inspired by watching this musical and dramatic mess is one of utter bewilderment. Or hysteria.

A hard-working, vocally impressive cast do their best with the material but aren't helped by sloppy, unimaginative staging by Marc Robin: the ham-fisted convention of having an actor dutifully rap on an upturned box to simulate knocking on a door may seem charmingly economical once or twice but after the tenth time just looks like woefully underfunded am-dram. Jamie Roderick's attractive tropical set extends into the auditorium and is rather lovely, although the decision to use flats to mask the sides of what is already a tiny stage is a clumsy one. The gorgeous video design by Louise Rhoades-Brown is undoubtedly the most successful aspect of the show, whisking us from ocean to mountains, town square to prison cell.

Broadway performer Wade McCollum fields a beautiful singing voice as a stiff-as-a-board Count Carl but is not a natural comedian, and his lurches into mawkish sentimentality never feel of a piece with the rest of the character, although that is the fault of the writing rather than the actor. As his beloved, Alyssa Martin sings with sweetness and power, despite having to spend whole sections of the evening pretending to be dead. Nuno Queimado shows genuinely creditable range in a variety of roles from a sinister doc to a drunk prisoner to a kindly judge.

This may not be right up there with the so-bad-it's-good musical disasters but it's not far off. It's amiable but inept, well-meaning but synthetic. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, especially when you consider that this has opened less than a week after the critically derided Knights of the Rose. Exactly how many bad musicals can we have playing at any one time?! If anybody needs me over the next few days, I'll be in the returns queue at the Young Vic for Fun Home.