After the opening night performance of “Love Kills” at the Firehouse a couple of weeks ago, I was heading out to my car in the Lowe’s parking lot. When I got to my car, I noticed a little clutch of three middle-aged women standing a couple of cars down from me. They were engaged in earnest conversation. Not intense conversation exactly, they just seemed like they were trying to figure something out.
I eavesdropped just a little, enough to realize that they were talking about “Love Kills.” I also heard enough to know that they were trying to parse some very specific issues. I was intrigued to hear such consideration given to theatrical issues so I hesitantly wandered over toward them and insinuated myself into their conversation.
Normally, I don’t like to discuss a show after it’s over with anyone but good friends or family. The whole “critic” thing tends to make casual acquaintances or strangers focus a little too intently on what I’m saying. It also tends to reduce the range of their commentary to extremes, most often “wasn’t that great!” but also sometimes “oh my, wasn’t that awful! Didn’t you hate it?” My friends and family don’t really seem to give a rip whether I’m a critic or not so they expound at will without undo concern about what I might say or hear.
So it was with some reluctance that I started to chat with these nice women in the middle of the Lowe’s parking lot. But I was glad I did because it turned into the kind of conversation that reminds me that audiences should be respected. Sure, some patrons doze off or show bad theater manners or react more to the pageantry of a show instead of its substance. But there are still plenty of theatergoers who care about theater, think about theater with some depth, and expect/demand a certain level of competence from the companies whose shows they frequent. In other words, they aren’t going to believe anyone who says the plate of hamburger they are being presented with is actually prime rib.
As the three women talked, I realized that between them they had seen several shows that had opened over the past several months (“Shipwrecked!,” “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming,” “Rent,” “Virginia Woolf”), they were familiar with each different theater company and even with several specific actors (in particular, Mr. Aliff who they thought was excellent in “Rent”). And they were struggling with “Love Kills” in many of the same ways that I was. In general, they did not like the songs. They had trouble with a couple of the performances (they found fault with Ms. Orelove in ways that I did not). And they were both intrigued and annoyed with the plotline, finding themselves alternately fascinated and bored. Though I listened much more than I spoke, I offered that it might have something to do with the subplot involving the sheriff and his wife.
Now don’t get me wrong: I understand the line of thought that some kind of supplement to the basic story of Charlie and Caril Ann is needed to turn their story into a complete musical. But in my opinion, the Merle and Gertrude subplot is too slight a story and it is given way too much focus. Charlie and Caril Ann are killers, cold-blooded killers that even murdered a child. The modest tribulations of two married folks do not in any way match or ‘balance’ the story of the homicidal teenagers. In fact, given that it is almost impossible to provide an appropriate counterpoint to the killers’ story, I would have suggested that whatever story was used to provide ballast to the main plotline be as minimal as possible (if you’ve seen the movie, consider the role that Robert Downey, Jr. plays in “Natural Born Killers.”)
Of course, I’m not the playwright and Mr. Jarrow made the choices he made. Still, for me, the Merle and Gertrude subplot trivializes the main plotline rather than enhances it.
Beyond “Love Will Never Die,” I didn’t find many of the songs particularly enchanting or compelling. Some of them were plagued with simplistic and reductive “even though we’re locked away / we’ll be OK” rhymes. Perhaps more of a problem, many of them seemed to lack a strong melody because there were times even Aliff and Orelove, who are both clearly accomplished singers, seemed to have trouble finding it.
I thought “The Funny Thing” was clever and Mr. Aliff’s delivery was fantastic. Aliff and Orelove singing together on songs like “Two Movies” was great to listen to – I really enjoyed both of their voices separately and the way they blended – but honestly, I would have rather watched them act more. Each of the scenes between the two of them – in the movie theater, in the motel room, after Charlie’s first murder, even in the jail – crackled with energy. By the end of the show, my annoyance with the songs grew because of the way they distracted from such gripping scenes between these two talented actors.
I won’t go too deeply into the problems I had with the production but I will expand on one of the concerns I mentioned in my review. My comment on the production’s lighting is also a reflection of some frustration. In general, I thought David McLain’s lighting design was fantastic – a real stand-out. But the jail cell walls were a functional problem, at least in the performance I saw. At least three times a cell “door” did not open when someone walked through it. The sound effect that signaled the door closing was also sporadic. In fact, it’s hard for me to remember exactly but I believe once I heard the sound effect even though the door never actually opened and closed making me wonder if it actually was supposed to be tied to the lighting cue. This is a small detail, I know, but it’s an essential one. When I am doing my best to suspend my disbelief and then a character essentially walks through a wall, it substantially undercuts the effort.
But I’ll also say again, as I did in my review, that all of this did not diminish for me the incredible job Aliff did in his role and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ms. Orelove. There was an edge of adolescent petulance in Orelove’s Caril Ann that I thought was good (and understandable since the real Caril Ann was 13) but at times pushed just a tiny bit too far. Having said that, I truly loved the scene when Caril Ann becomes the strong one and comforts Charlie in their motel room. I think nudity on stage can be a distraction but in this case, I thought it was neither gratuitous nor distracting, and entirely appropriate given the nature of the scene. In fact, it might have ruined the scene for me if they got in the bath in their underwear or somehow had bathing suits or something under their clothes.
As for Mrs. Jones-Clark (I didn’t think Kim hyphenated but that’s how it was listed in the program) and Mr. Gard, I don’t know what they could have done to redeem a subplot that I already had problems with. Whatever that was, they didn’t do it. It may not be fair to them but I really just wanted their scenes to end so we could get back to Charlie and Caril Ann.
Which brings me back to my three new friends in the Lowe’s parking lot. They talked some about the morbid fascination of the story and concluded that, despite their negative reactions to some parts of the show, it was still compelling enough to keep them interested all the way to the end. One of them wondered whether they would have liked the show more if there had been a scene depicting an actual killing. They were almost embarrassed, I think, to conclude that they might have. I don’t know if I agree but I do think that the killing of Caril Ann’s parents in particular is given short shrift here. There are inklings of some psychological break in Caril Ann due to their killing – her line where she asks if they’ll be at her trial. This is fertile dramatic ground and I don’t think “Love Kills” plows into it nearly deep enough.
After I had finished writing my review, I read some of the background material that the Firehouse links to from their website. I was surprised and disconcerted to read that, in real life, Caril Ann ran to the police when they were first arrested crying out that Charlie had forced her all along. So the musical takes one specific detail of the real story, contradicts it and makes it one of the main thrusts of its fictionalized plotline. I’m sure this isn’t unusual with adaptations but in this case, I think it’s unfortunate. Knowing the truth just deflates my opinion of this show a little bit more.