Book, Music and Lyrics: Stephen Dolginoff
Director: Adam Lacey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Chicago, May 1924. Two ferociously intelligent friends, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, commit what is then dubbed the Crime of the Century when they kidnap and kill the 14-year-old son of a wealthy citizen. When they are captured, they admit that they are driven by the thrill of killing: they have graduated to murder when the more petty crimes they had been committing failed to give them the hit they sought. Thanks to their brilliant counsel, Clarence Darrow, they avoid the death penalty, instead being sentenced to life for the murder plus 99 years for the kidnap.
Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 musical is the latest in a string of works about, or inspired by, Leopold and Loeb. He seeks to examine the nature of the relationship between the two. It has been nominated for a number of awards, winning the Music Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
We open in 1958, with an apparently contrite Leopold appearing before the parole board – his fifth such appearance. Leopold tells the story of their relationship and the history of the crime which we then see in flashback. At a few points, the 1958 Leopold reappears to offer commentary on what we see unfold in 1924.
And what we see is two men in a somewhat abusive relationship. Loeb is obsessed by his interpretation of the writing of Nietzsche, seeing them as Supermen for whom the petty rules and regulations of ordinary people don’t apply. Leopold is in thrall to Loeb, while Loeb is largely indifferent to Leopold. But each needs the other: Loeb needs an audience to appreciate his cleverness and help him in his escalating crime spree; Leopold needs the sexual attentions of Loeb. Both prospective lawyers, they draw up a contract: each will get what he needs from the other.
But despite meticulous planning, a clue is left behind at the murder scene leading to their capture.
This is an intimate piece, just two actors (and some disembodied voices in the parole hearing) enable us to see their characters and the changing dynamic between them. Karl Steele’s young Leopold is a tightly buttoned individual and the internal battle between his need for Loeb’s attentions and his own conscience is clear in both his body language and actions. James Edge brings us the cocky, scheming and sly Loeb. Both bring decent voices to deliver the songs and emotions successfully. We, of course, can see what Leopold can’t – or won’t – that Loeb is merely using Leopold and would dispose of him the instant he stops being useful. But even early on, we get hints that their needs might be complementary – in much of the action, Steele shows us a Leopold pleading with James’ arrogant Loeb, but in the song Thrill Me, following the signing of their contract, it’s clear that Leopold also seeks thrills – thrills that only a relationship with Loeb, even a superficial and abusive physical one, can provide.
Director Adam Lacey maintains the tension so that the whole flows. Well-designed lighting directs our attention and also means we are never in the dark about whether it’s the older or younger Leopold who speaks. Moods are also heightened by the almost constant backing of piano music from musical director Nick Allen.
Stephen Dolginoff’s book and songs carry the narrative smoothly along with its own twisted logic, with songs that fit in seamlessly in this arc. We do feel that we get to know these characters, their dysfunctional relationship, their needs and motivations well as the story progresses. Not an easy watch: neither character is loveable, or even likeable, to the observer, but we can begin to understand why each asks the other to Thrill Me.
Runs Until 5 May 2018 | Image: Contributed