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A CurtainUp Review
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
By Elyse Sommer
Thrill Me is a chamber musical with just two actors (Matt Bauer and Doug Kreeger) to portray Leopold and Loeb, plus voice overs from three unseen actors -- Stephen Bogardus and John McMartin as the interrogators at Leopold's 1958 parole board hearing which serves as a framing device, and director Michael Rupert as a radio broadcaster. The show's single line of ironic humor comes from Loeb during his murder trial. Faced with a death sentence or 99-years-plus life sentence, he's still delusional enough to see his defense attorney Clarence Darrow as a role model and declare "that's the kind of lawyer I'm going to be." (Both Loeb and Leopold were law students at the time of the murder, Loeb at the University of Chicago, Leopold at Harvard).
Both Bauer and Kreeger act and sing well. Kreeger is especially good at portraying Richard Loeb's complicated psyche and infatuation with Nietzsche's superman theories. However, it's impossible to make these creepy characters sympathetic.
Though there's plenty of dialogue and the score is melodic and not atonal like some poperatic new musicals of recent years, Thrill Me often feels both sung-through and operatic. This perception stems from the unrelievedly grim story line and the talented Mr. Dolginoff's tight construction. The spoken dialogue and sung lyrics are so seamlessly integrated that you hardly notice the shifts from speaking to singing as there are none of the usual pauses for audiences to applaud any standout songs. The show's seventeen scenes just keep moving forward, consistently tense and dark.
What we have then is a musical with pluses that are also negatives. On the plus side: the tight structure with its smoothly integrated score and libretto. . . two fascinating characters who lend themselves to strong musical interpretation. . . the small scale that makes this an easy show to mount in regional and summer theaters. On the negative side: the dense structure leaves no room for light, lively musical theater touches and because all the songs are so inseparable from the text, there's no opportunity for any to function as a stand-alone "hit."
Oddball and difficult as the subject matter Mr. Dolginoff has chosen is, his score is, as already mentioned, agreeably melodious and thus easily accessible to a wide audience. Unfortunately, it is also somewhat repetitive. This is not helped by its being orchestrated for a single piano which in its position to the right of the stage emphasizes the repetitiveness and often drowns out the voices. It's always nice to hear music sung unmiked, but in this case that pleasure is a mixed blessing. Either the performers' voices aren't strong enough for unamplified singing or the piano needs to be toned down or positioned upstage and behind a sound-softening curtain.
As for the lyrics that the audience must often strain to hear because of that overly loud piano and/or the performers' insufficient vocal powers, here again we have pluses and minuses. Like the spoken text they work well to build the characters and move the plot forward (or rather backward, since most of the action is a flashback from the 1958 parole hearing to the 1924 events). Some resonate well, mostly those depicting each character's growing awareness of danger and defeat.
The discovery of his glasses at the crime scene has Nathan singing "It's all starting to unravel/the next sound we hear/will be the/gavel!" Unable to say no to Richard's plea to stick with him, he sings "I'll do what you want me to/There's no me, if there's no you"! The cocky Richard pins his hopes on Darrow as he admits his fear of being locked up with "Darrow's gonna try/He had better try/I'm afraid to live/I'm afraid to die! " When Nathan triumphantly sings that he's now got the upper hand, Richard concedes "You finally topped me;/you finally stopped me." Too often, however, the lyrics are klutzy and ponderous and one wishes that Mr. Dolginoff had focused on giving his score more variety and creating more scenes as riveting as the murder sequence in which Richard seduces the unseen victim into his car with a memorably chilling song, "Roadster."
The unlikable characters and other shortcomings aside, no one interested in new musical theater work should miss the opportunity to see Thrill Me during its all too brief York Theatre. It's a unique, well constructed piece and director Michael Rupert has given it a fine production. James Morgan's simple, abstract set with its dark columns and minimal props serves the flashback story telling well. Thom Weaver's striking lighting and Jennifer Paar's costume design facilitate Bauer's transition from middle-aged prisoner to nineteen-year-old. Weaver's lighting is absolutely stunning in the two crime seasons -- the first an act of arson, the second the kidnapping of young Bobby Franks.
Thrill Me marks the final main stage production in the invaluable York Theatre's 36th season. The srcappy little presenter of original musicals has been on a lucky streak. Its delightful Musical of Musicals (review) nabbed numerous awards and transferred successfully to Dodger Stages where it's still running. Souvenier (review) is enjoying life outside New York (it's part of the Berkshire Theatre Festival's summer season -- see our Berkshire Main Page. Thrill Me, too is likely to have a post-York life.
In John Logan's provocative non-musical drama about Leopold and Loeb (see Never the Sinner) Clarence Darrow memorably addressed the revulsion audiences are likely to feel while watching any version of these troubled young men's story: "I could see the sin . . . but never the sinner."
A special note for readers with children: Thrill Me is playing in repertory with a new family musical: Captain Louie, the world premiere family musical based on Caldecott Award-winning author Ezra Jack Keats' picture bookThe Trip. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Direction is by Meridee Stein, with music direction by Edward Barnes and choreography by Joshua Bergasse. The cast of Captain Louie includes Brandon M. Arrington, Alexio Barboza, Jodie Bentley, Jimmy Dieffenbach, Kelsey Fatebene, Sara Kapner, Ronnie Mercedes, Sarah Stiles and Mark Whitten. Performances are Fridays at 6:30 PM, Sats. 11:30 AM and 2:30 PM, Sundays 1:00 and 3:00 PM; Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM, through June 12th. Tickets are $35. SmartTix 212-868-4444
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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