By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
While the Jazz Age produced headlines that proved titillating and provocative, none captured the nation’s attention more than the thrill-seeking murder of an innocent 14-year-old by two Jewish college graduates, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. In the anything-goes period marked by the lawlessness of the bootleggers and rampant laissez-fairism in industry, Leopold and Loeb defined a line where society would dare not cross and “a crime of the century” it could not condone.
Chosen completely at random by the killers, Bobby Franks was kidnapped and murdered by the pair of 19-year-olds just to experience the thrill of the kill. Defended by no less a galvanizing figure and orator than Clarence Darrow, the two escaped the death penalty and were sentenced to life in prison after a shocking police investigation and trial.
Admittedly lovers, Leopold and Loeb’s story sent shock waves across the country as details of their co-dependent relationship were revealed. The two, who otherwise might have gone on to have established brilliant legal careers, were heavily influenced by philosopher Frederich Nietzche, whose concept of a “superman” above society and not bound by limitations imposed upon him from society also inspired Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies with their crimes against humanity.
This unlikely subject for a musical and theatrical work might seem preposterous. See Em On Stage Productions, a company that has cut its proverbial teeth on splatter zones in less serious works like Evil Dead: The Musical and Terminator: The Musical and achieved Big Easy Awards for its production of the rock-tinged Lizzie: The Musical, steps up its game again in presenting Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story by composer and lyricist Stephen Dolginoff.
Starring John Fitzpatrick as Leopold and Eli Timm as Loeb, Thrill Me is a very powerful work and is, in reality, a psychological thriller. With only occasional voiceovers of other actors to move the action along, the two leads are together on the stage of the Allways Theatre almost the entire time connecting with one another.
Perhaps most menacing of the two is Timm, who as Loeb, suavely convinces Fitzgerald, the entitled issue of a rich family, to take part in more and more involved criminal acts in order to strengthen their relationship. “We are above society. Murder is the only crime worthy of our talents, Nathan,” he coldly pronounces.
This is not just a homoerotic tale. It is a psychological study in just how far one person in a relationship will go in order to make a partner happy. And on the other hand, this is not just a simple relationship. The two draw on each other in order to continue the relationship and satisfy each other’s needs. They are co-dependent sociopaths, but just who is in charge and directing the action remains to be seen.
With just a simple piano accompaniment by music director Ainsley Matich, this aptly named piece is full of Dolginoff’s very interesting music and lyrics that advance the motivations of both characters.
It is a musical that is not intended for youngsters and will probably offend more than a few people who are turned off by their anti-social and psychopathic actions. Clearly, Leopold and Loeb were more than sociopaths. Their twisted actions were directed to prove their superiority over the ordinary and mundane. In the end, the question remains: were they taken in by their own misguided philosophy or was each one taken in by the other?
Surprisingly, it is easy to enjoy this dark work, which is directed by See ‘Em On Stage’s Christopher Bentivegna. Both actors do a delicate dance with each other as they unpack their character’s feelings and motivations. As the story develops and their complicated relationship is revealed through the songs and in flashback scenes, we experience a very dark patch of man’s psyche and a contempt of the privileged for normalcy.
While the crime took place more than 90 years ago, the concept of the wealthy and entitled class being above the law and society-at-large is still prevalent in today’s headline. The 2016 Texas case of the 16-year-old, who drunkenly killed four and used “affluenza” in his defense is a startling reminder that the sentiments held by Leopold and Loeb in Thrill Me, still echo in the present.
Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story finishes its run at the Allways Theater and Lounge, 2224 St. Claude Avenue tonight, Sunday, November 26 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are available here and are available at $15.00 each with the following code: LASTSHOWBLESSINGS. Normally, tickets are $20.00 each.