Julian Eaves reviews new musical It Happened In Key West by Jill Santoriello and Jason Huza now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre.
It Happened In Key West
Charing Cross Theatre,
10th July 2018
Jill Santoriello is feted as the first woman to produce book, music and lyrics for a Broadway musical, and she is a remarkable talent. She scored quite a hit about a decade ago with her take on the Dickens novel, ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’, out of which, starting from the 1980s, she gradually fashioned a fair imitation of the commercially successful model of ‘Les Miserables’ (in the original Broadway company of which her brother, Alex, appeared: he also produced the first performances of his sister’s show), with a good dash of Frank Wildhorn’s pop-operatic style thrown in. There is a consistency and coherence to that piece that reflects wells on her abilities: there is plenty of melodic invention, her harmonic language is fresh and involving, her understanding and representation of character is sensitive, and her management of narrative events and theatrical scale is confident and dramatically thrilling. Sadly, its New York debut met with a lot of bad luck, although it gained an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and many other nominations, but it has subsequently proved its durability throughout the world and it keeps on resurfacing in productions all over the place. If only this were the show we were seeing now at the Charing Cross Theatre, I’m sure we would be celebrating her. Instead, we get the more recent offering now bravely placed in view for our inspection.
This is being promoted as a ‘New Romantic Musical Comedy’, and while there is a lot of music in it, there’s nothing new about the story or style, it’s about as romantic as embracing a corpse and the laughs are few and far between and always ring hollow. Santoriello has written the book alongside Jason Huza (who also contributes additional music) and also with the fairly youthful lead producer Jeremiah James (who also came up with the original concept). Mr James was present at the London premiere, wearing a flippantly jokey pair of Paul Smith slippers with matching tie, and there is much in the show that reflects the same, cutesy, oddball sense of humour: personally, I don’t find that it sits at all well with Santoriello’s epic, heroic mode. We shall see what other audiences make of it.
What we get here is a clutch of perky musical numbers that are fairly niftily written pastiches of early Thirties and Forties American pop songs: but, to be perfectly honest, they could have been written by anyone, and to any purpose. On a set (the production is designed by fellow American, Jamie Roderick) that looks for all the world like a superior amateur production of ‘South Pacific’, complete with seashore gift shop bric-a-brac tumbling from the stage and into the auditorium, another American, Marc Robin (the Executive Artistic Producer – no less – of the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where this show had its workshop presentation last summer) takes on the onerous responsibility of both direction and choroegraphy, and makes a clunking mess of both. He hasn’t a clue what to do with the show. A batch of packing cases are brought on and those – dear paying audience members – are pretty much what constitute the ‘set’ you are going to see for the entire evening. Get used to them.
Perhaps they exhausted the budget on all the actors? Even though this is a story with basically only two characters in it, there is quite a crowd of extras massed around them to, well, basically comment on their shenanigans. We are constantly told that this is ‘based’ on a true story: well, yes, ‘based’, but there are all the usual show-business compromises. One of the leads, a still fairly youthful, athletic, handsome actor, Wade McCollum, makes a much, much more glamorous and appealing Count Carl von Closen than the real-life teutonic weirdo, who developed a fetishistic passion for the deceased mortal remains of the much, much younger Elena Hoyos (the relative newcomer Alyssa Martin); ‘Carl’, as we fondly know him, found some way of embalming the cadaver in all that Florida heat, keeping it bundled together with yards of piano wire, and filled his pointless days with wheeling it around town, draped ‘in cognito’ under voluminous garments, and carrying on like the married couple he pretended them to be.
When his little ruse was finally discovered, he was hauled in before the courts (a nice turn by Nuno Queimado as the judge), but popular sentiment supported von Cosel, and after a month or so of fuss, the matter was fairly swiftly dropped (honestly, what that tropical heat must do to the minds of those that live there). So, you have to imagine a situation that is part ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ and part what happened to Norman Bates when he grew old and crusty and retired to Florida, as such people so often do, and didn’t murder Janet Leigh. Yes, there is plentiful opportunity for macabre humour here – one has only to think of Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’ and other such entertainments that have succeeded in finding such laughs – but this show really, really does not have the disposition to stick to such an approach. No indeed: it keeps wanting to turn into ‘Love Never Dies’; the pastiche finishes, and we switch – with a jolt – back into sub-operatic manner, as if we should really be hearing Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel singing it. I’m sure Andrew Lloyd Webber (working with the book and lyrics firm of Slater, Elton and Forsyth) is delighted with the tribute, but this combination, rather like that of a superannuated elderly Eurotrash aristo fake doctor and a tubercular Latina waif, is just not going to let itself become another version of Beauty and the Beast that easily. As shows go, this one belongs to the world of the walking dead only.
And that’s a pity for the cast: this must be one of the most ethnically diverse shows in town, and such things are a rarity. The US trained Val Adams makes a vivacious Nurse; Miguel Angel is the Doctor who gives our enthusiastic would-be Baron Frankenstein his big break… and, even more questionably, access to vulnerable dying patients; Alexander Barria puts a lot of energy into the roles of the victim’s dad and the sheriff; Mary-Jean Caldwell is his wife, while Sophia Lewis and Hannah McIver become their other daughters, Nana and Celia, who come up with their own tawdry little corrupt plan to turn their dead sibling into a money-making side-show (once they have pocketed the jewels von Cosel gave her and wished to see buried with her… for him to dig up again?). And the actual widower, Luis, is Guido Garcia Lueches, who will best be remembered for the cold way he flinches away from Elena on hearing of her TB diagnosis. They’re a lovely bunch, and I know you’re going to warm to them just as much as I did.
The rest of the company is made up of Ross McLaren and Johan Munir as Tom and Mario, with the Swings of Andrea Golinucci and Siwan Henderson. There’s a band of seven, led by Andrew Hopkins, but what you will most notice in American Robert Felstein’s orchestrations is the super-abundance of digitalised imitation brass, that never sounds anything other than fake. Andrew Johnson’s sound design can make everyone sound crystal clear – sadly, we miss none of the very variable lyrics… would that we did not hear so many of them – but he cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The orchestrations sound every bit as cheap as the set looks. Oddly, no lighting designer is credited in the programme, so I presume it is the work of the production designer: it certainly competes with the set for lack of imagination. (If you think I’m being too hard, then just count – Count! – the number of times actors have to fake knocking on a door, by banging their hand on one of those damned packing cases, and then how many times they then have to ‘mime’ opening, if not always closing that imaginary door. Yes, it really is that amateur.)
I suppose, just conceivably, this show might work if the leads were well cast and had any magic between them. While McCollum and Martyn plainly do their sincere best, they are ill-served by a concatenation of bad production, script, score and direction. Ultimately, he comes across as if he is re-visiting Frank Epps from Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Parade’ – and even has a slight lisp to go with it, while she is over-taxed by a part that needs a more mature and stronger voice, and is then totally crippled by having to re-do the much wheeled about Anthony Hendon part from Ahrens and Flaherty’s ‘Lucky Stiff’. They can’t win.
So, to all the people who told me that this show is a comedy and that I would enjoy watching it, I ask simply this: what did I miss that was so funny?