The York Theatre Company, NYC - May 2005
Reviewed by John Kenrick
Dark, eerie, chilling -- not the qualities one usually expects in a musical, but in its current staging at the York, Stephen Dolginoff's fascinating Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story is all that and more. Any number of musicals have looked at the dark side of the human psyche, but none I know of has dared to delve into the minds of real life murderers. Fair notice to all those who claim an interest in musical theatre -- attention must be paid!
In 1924, America was both appalled and intrigued by the story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy teenagers from suburban Chicago who randomly murdered a young neighbor. One of the most fascinating aspects of the case -- namely, the homosexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb -- could only be hinted at in the newspapers. Thrill Me looks at the twisted blend of domination, manipulation and sexual pleasure that eventually led these two young men to kill a child in cold blood.
Leopold was hopelessly in love with his childhood friend -- the calculating Loeb saw Leopold as a tool in his diabolical plans to commit "the perfect crime." Their agreement signed in blood is almost child-like -- its outcome is a nightmare for all concerned. Legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow made history by keeping these young men out of the electric chair, so you might think he would be a central character here. Instead he is barely mentioned -- and rightly so. While sticking to the key facts of the case, Thrill Me offers a thought provoking explanation of Leopold and Loeb's relationship. The key question is, just who was finally manipulating who?
With it's two character format and intimate physical production, Thrill Me looks and feels like a chamber opera, but the music is very much in a contemporary musical theatre idiom. It is damned hard to make such material sing, but Stephen Dolginoff succeeds brilliantly. His sparing use of humor in this piece is unusually effective, as is his refusal to stoop to titillation or true crime story clichés. The gay relationship at the heart of this story is discussed but never exploited -- and such exploitation is rendered unnecessary by the overall quality of the writing. That Dolginoff created the book, music and lyrics single-handedly makes him one of the most exciting new musical theatre talents to appear in years. Unless I miss my guess, theatre lovers will soon become quite familiar with his name.
Jennifer Paar's costumes are period perfect, and James Morgan's stark all-black set provides just the right frame for Thom Weaver's brilliant lighting. Director Michael Rupert has worked wonders here, creating a show that remains gripping even as it takes us into rather creepy territory. (One wonders how the late Gower Champion would react to see such outstanding, dark work from the boy he directed in The Happy Time back in 1968.) Eugene Gwozdz's musical direction provided the cast with flawless support.
A demanding work like Thrill Me could easily fall short if the casting were not exactly right. As it is, the York's cast could hardly be improved upon.. Doug Kreeger plays Loeb with an icy blend of ego, brutality and sex appeal. My only regret is that Dolginoff does not give us more insight into what made this killer tick. He certainly gives us a much fuller idea of what may have been in Leopold's mind, and Matt Bauer's sensitive, carefully calibrated performance creates moments that will haunt you. The two leads are abetted by three delightful pre-recorded performances, all provided by well-known musical stage stars -- Stephen Bogardus and John McMartin as Leopold's parole board, and director Michael Rupert as a radio news announcer.
Many bemoan the reluctance of producers to showcase new, innovative musicals. With Thrill Me, The York Theatre Company continues its ongoing efforts to fill that gap. In fact, coming at the end of a season of new musicals that included the acclaimed Souvenir and the delicious Lingoland, the engrossing Thrill Me affirms the York's status as one of the few creative epicenters for the American musical theatre.
Update Review - July 15, 2005
When the run of Thrill Me was extended, Matt Bauer had to leave the cast due to a previous commitment. Author Stephen Dolginoff has stepped into the role of Leopold, with exciting results. What was already a fascinating show now even stronger, with richer layers of nuance. Ranging from nebbish to demon, Dolginoff's performance makes it clear that Loeb was not only every inch the monster Leopold is -- in some ways, he was even more hateful. Dolginoff does this while creating moments of amazingly appropriate laughter. Not since Noel Coward has a composer-lyricist-librettist given New York such a remarkable performance in his own work.
Doug Kreeger has further honed his fine performance, so Thrill Me is even better than when I cheered it on two months ago. This intriguing show and its gifted creator give me real hope for the future of musical theatre.