The show tells the true story of the infamous thrill killers Nathan Leopold (Bauer) and Richard Loeb (Doug Kreeger). In 1924, the two teenagers kidnapped and killed a boy named Bobby Franks, mainly because they could. They were defended in court by legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, who successfully argued against the death penalty in this case. The action of the musical begins in 1958 as Leopold appears in front of a parole board, but it soon flashes back to detail the events that led up to the gruesome killing and its aftermath.
The tale of Leopold and Loeb has inspired such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, Richard Fleischer's Compulsion, and Tom Kalin's Swoon, as well as the plays Never the Sinner by John Logan and (more recently) Golden Age by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Dolginoff's piece is probably closest in spirit to Kalin's; both focus almost exclusively on the psychosexual dynamic between the two men, combining elements of a sadistic crime thriller with those of a queer love story.
In the songs that he has crafted for the show, Dolginoff excels at irony. If sung out of context, "Nothing Like a Fire" would seem to be a lovely, romantic ballad; but in context, it refers to arson and to the fact that criminal activity stimulates Loeb's libido. Likewise, Loeb's solo "Roadster" is chilling precisely because the sweet, seductive melody -- beautifully sung by the honey-voiced Kreeger -- belies the sinister act of luring the unsuspecting Bobby Franks into Loeb's car.
This musical two-hander doesn't actually show us the murder, and it takes a few liberties with historical facts. In real life, Leopold and Loeb knew their victim; here, they do not. During their imprisonment in Joliet, the two were kept apart, but the musical implies otherwise. The latter detail is crucial to Dolginoff's unique take on the Leopold and Loeb story, which features a surprising twist at the end. Most of the alterations to and omissions from the thrill killers' story are understandable, as the writer-composer needed to have the creative license to tell the story he wanted to tell; still, it's puzzling that Darrow only gets a cursory mention. Given that his impassioned courtroom speeches saved the duo's lives, a more detailed account of what went on during the trial seems warranted.
Additionally, the show's framing device does not work. It's unclear whether the details of the story as we see it acted out are the same as those that Leopold relates to the parole board. Also, Leopold only pays lip service to any feelings of remorse over the crime, making the board's decision to grant him parole (which is historically accurate) seem inexplicable. The voices of the parole board members were taped by Broadway veterans Stephen Bogardus and John McMartin, obviously as a favor for director Michael Rupert, who is himself best known as a musical theater actor; these voicovers seem a bit cheesy and could be better integrated into the show. It might even be better if the roles were performed live, so that the dialogue between Leopold and the board would flow more naturally.
Rupert's staging of the show lacks passion, which is the crucial ingredient necessary to make this tale work. Part of the problem here is the performance by Matt Bauer, whose Leopold is stiff and awkward. Vocally, Bauer creates some lovely harmonies with Kreeger but runs into trouble with sustained notes. He also has difficulty projecting over the piano accompaniment that's provided by music director Eugene Gwozdz. Kreeger, on the other hand, is convincing as Loeb, combining just the right amounts of charisma, petulance, and arrogance.
Thrill Me was well-received in a previous Off-Off-Broadway incarnation at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2003, which I did not see. That staging had a different cast and director. The current York Theatre Company production demonstrates the potential of this chamber musical but also exposes its flaws.
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