“Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story,” with book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff, is a truly thrilling piece of derring-do that gives us the sweep, horror and romance of one of the most chilling crimes of the last century. And in case you’re late to the party, Leopold and Loeb were not only icily intelligent teenagers, neither one 20 yet, and they were also lovers.
We meet Nathan Leopold (Joe Bigelow) at his parole trial, his fifth one after 34 years of incarceration. Voices of the parole board skewer him, as he’s asked to defend his petition for release. We are then treated to an extended flashback, as he tells his story of love, woe, and fate.
Dean Linnard is Richard Loeb, and when he and Nathan first meet after a long separation, you understand precisely the nature of their relationship. Richard is a charming sociopath, so when Nathan sings “everybody wants Richard,” it’s because Richard knows which buttons to push to make self-driven people into willing, swooning marionettes. Linnard has a burning intensity, with the thrum of high tension wires lurking just below human hearing, while Bigelow’s louche sexiness plays hide and seek with this sharp intellect. Throughout the entire play, one act performed without intermission, like a continuous camera shot, everything you think is true will turn on a dime in the denouement.
Musical director Andy Peterson is a masterful genius with his playing, making the piano feel like an entire orchestra, as he plays the Dolginoff’s score. Dolginoff has woven a lush musical that, in its opening bars, feels like Rachmaninoff meets “Jekyll and Hyde,” and we’re swept up in Peterson’s performance, as well as by the score. When Leopold sings his love songs, and he and Loeb harmonize, it’s sheer delight. Their voices are as pure as Peterson’s playing and, at times, I closed my eyes to feel the delicious friction of the harmonies.
Brian Dudkiewicz has designed a set that’s like a razor–thin and sharp with nothing wasted. At one end, there’s a mullioned window that acts as a warehouse window, access space and, ultimately, perhaps a window to hell. At the other end is an exploded wall that has burst prison bars, behind which is Peterson. It was enjoyable and a bit surreal seeing only his left arm playing the piano, while the macabre story spun out before my eyes. Director Cheryl Katz’ staging took full advantage, with no wasted motion. It was living history and, while no one knows what these men actually said to one another, Bigelow and Linnard provide a very real-feeling potential history.
This is the perfect Chrisma-Chanu-Kwanzaa-kah gift for your friend who’s devoted to American Horror Story. It is a love story with more gravitas than “Sweeney Todd” and made all the more mad by being motivated by love rather than revenge. I’ll be seeing “Thrill Me” again.
for tickets to “Thrill Me,” directions, and more information. Be sure to visit the adjacent Context Room that has much information that makes the show even more meaningful! “Thrill Me” runs, in West Orange, New Jersey, through December 20.