It happened in Key West at The Charing Cross Theatre, London

It is the week in which every theatre newsletter contains the message that the facilities have air conditioning. Even without London’s heatwave continuing we are taken back to Key West in this new musical.

Having been lucky enough to have visited Key West if only for a day, it is the US’ most southern point, Mile 0. It was a day filled with snorkelling, lime key pie, conch dishes and a round tour in which our driver’s warmly accented voice taught us about celebrities making Key West one of the most unaffordable places to live nowadays, Hemingway’s residence, entangled trees and the relationship to geographically close-by Cuba. It was paradise – no wonder, a show referring to Key West was booked the minute it was announced!

Spanish guitar music set in Key West

The venue is in the arcades under Charing Cross Station and when I was in the area (seeing Kinky Boots) I mistook the entrance for the stage door. Charing Cross Theatre is a gem worth discovering and I might pop down again for a drink in its piano bar.

Our seats are on the side balcony but surprisingly we are not sitting next to but in front of each other – the balcony on the right side mirrors the design but there no one seems to know each other. For us, wanting to reminisce about a once-in-a-lifetime day in Caribbean temperatures two years ago (being on a work trip in Florida) it feels like sitting on a bus. Luckily this is not a first date.

The story is set in the early 1930s, decades ahead of the gentrification in Conch Republic. Some stranger strands on the beach. The locals give him a job in the local clinic as a doctor, operating the x-ray machinery. Count Carl von Cosel is German and that seems to be enough to explain all his rationality and his medical knowledge but also all of his awkwardness and spleens. Unfortunately, we will not learn much more about our eccentric leading character.

Then the doctor falls in love with one of his much younger patients who sees him with her husband. After he shares the fatal diagnoses of tuberculosis to his love interest Elena, her husband leaves her for fear of transmitting the illness. A triumph for Carl. Now on her own she accepts Carl’s support above his professional duties and he is soon welcomed in her wider family. But at a beach party everyone gets out cigars (e-cigars on stage) a shouty argument arises and Carl does not believe Elena’s father understands how severe her illness is. She shares with him that she is indeed frightened of lying dead in a dark, cold grave.

From our seats we cannot see Elenas reaction when Carl proposes to her – they do live together eventually and the doctor shows her the inventions he builds in his back yard. He now focusses all his energy on trying to save Elena’s life and experiments with radiation. Sadly Elena dies before he succeeds. The heartbroken, lovesick Carl dedicates a mausoleum to her.

Maritime atmosphere in the Charing Cross Theatre

In the interval we decide to move seats. At stall row L the stage lays ahead and the staff assures us that now we will not miss a thing. The two gentlemen in the row before us have an infectious laugh and therefore we enjoy the second half much more. The speed of the story also picks up: Carl returns with an elena-like doll helping him to get over his loss. Again we regret that we do not learn more about him – Elena had her greedy siblings to underline her purity but Carl could now do with a sidekick, not just a passive, silent companion. And the best songs are still reserved for a musical trio of guys at the beach with Spanish guitars and in the two short church scenes.

Carl is not a Frankenstein like the surgeon in Bulgakov’s Hundeherz (maybe with similar ambitions) but as reviving Elena only happens in his dreams, he sticks to the mummification of her body and takes her out on his bicycle. It takes several years for the morbid truth to come out, after what have been several years of a very happy marriage, at least for Carl.

While the people of the Keys are initially shocked and disgusted, a lot of press is being attracted and in the end Carl is embraced back in society as a local hero. A judge insists on giving Elena’s body back to have it buried for good. That this is the only consequence is comical. The German theatre scene has created the subgenre “grusical” for this – a musical with morbid, black-humoured and sometimes scary content.

We leave the theatre and joke about the absurdity of the case. Key West’s city motto is after all officially: “One Human Family.”

On the train I skip through the printed program to discover It Happened In Key West is based on a real story. I gasp for air. Now, that is shocking. And indeed, it is a news story made for musical (or better grusical) theatre. I am surprised that no one had the idea before.

It Happened In Key West is a new musical based on a true story

It Happened In Key West – written and composed by Jill Santoriello, co-written by Jason Huza and Jeremiah James

*** out of 5 stars

We paid £26 per seat on the balcony

Performed at The Charing Cross Theatre until August.

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