I went to see “It Happened at Key West” at the Charing Cross Theatre last night. I went largely because the musical director I’ll be working with when I direct Brass at Mountview was MDing the piece and I wanted to show a bit of solidarity. It was only when I arrived that I realised my friends Shannon and Cam were actually working as Associate Director and Producer on the show. I was a little confused when Shannon came bounding over, largely because I thought she was in Spain. When she mentioned that she was working as an Associate Director, I asked what show she was on and she looked a little confused before pointing at the theatre we were standing outside! Note to self: keep your ear a little closer to the ground.
I went into the show without a programme or any knowledge of what I was going to see. From its title, I wondered if it was going to be a show about a clutch of retired Jewish women or a gaggle of gays. Despite going there in 2010, I really don’t know a great deal about Florida. I didn’t even know, for example, that Key West was an island.
Anyway, it’s difficult to know whether I can really talk about the plot line without revealing any spoilers. Suffice to say the piece is based on a true story, set in the 1930s, about an X-ray technician who finds the girl of his dreams, but is immediately forced to tell her that she has tuberculosis, a disease which she succumbs to at the end of Act One. So what happens in Act Two? Well, let’s just say he continues to look after her...
I personally think there’s a very fine show in there which a bit of spit and polish and an open-minded writer ought to be able to pull out. It has all the ingredients - love, loss, humour, desperate sadness - but it needs to decide what it wants it to be. Is it a farce? Is it a piece about mental illness? Is it a tragedy? It can, of course, be all of the aforementioned, but the audience needs to be guided. There were a group of cackling older women on the front row who found some of the most tender moments incredibly amusing because the subject matter is so dark and uncomfortable. That laughter told me that the piece wasn’t quite hitting its marks. An audience should never be confused. Take them on a roller coaster ride by all means and challenge their taste buds, but it’s important they always know where they are. When an audience it gives you a collective note like that - and tells you that they don’t know whether to laugh or cry - it’s important to listen.
The other thing which needs to be addressed is the writer’s almost compulsive inability to set words to music with natural inflections. Scantion was not her best friend. It is almost impossible for an actor to convey sense when the melody he is singing places emphasis on all the wrong syllables. It’s something most musical theatre writers get wrong from time to time. Nathan regularly picks me up on it. Made in Dagenham and Mrs Henderson Presents were both filled with countless, ghastly examples. Bad scantion jolts an audience out of appreciating a piece because they’re constantly thinking “that doesn’t sound quite right...” or “what was that line?”
Actually, as it happened the composer was also the lyricist - and she’s actually a really decent lyricist and a very lovely melodist. But you crap on all the good work if you can’t marry the two successfully.