t's not difficult to see why Thrill Me (2003) was nominated for a hatful of awards when it played Off-Broadway.
It's harder, though, to comprehend why this slick, sophisticated musical two-hander about the infamous Chicago "thrill killers" Leopold and Loch has taken so long to reach our stages. I would be greatly surprised if Stephen Dolginoffs gripping work doesn't have a life beyond the tiny Tristan Bates.
The story of two rich university students and their desire to commit the perfect crime gripped America in the Twenties and has continued to fascinate artists since. Dolginoff sticks to the two protagonists and the build-up to and aftermath of their shocking murder of "some random kid".
Most fascinating is the psychological power-play in the young men's relationship, as Nathan Leopold (Jye Frasca), burning with love and lust for cruel, popular Richard Loeb (George Maguire), agrees to abet him in his malfeasance in return for fleeting sexual favours.
Both Frasca and Maguire are superb, the former seeming to shrink and gain pallor in the flash-forwards to his parole hearing in 1958. Thrilling indeed.
Thrill Me, a claustrophobic, chamber piece by Stephen Dolginoff could have been made for the venue. It's the story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two well-heeled American undergraduates who shocked America in the Twenties when they murdered a 14-year-old boy just for the kicks.
It inspired Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play Rope, which, 19 years on, Alfred Hitchcock turned into a film with James Stewart and Farley Granger.
Dolginoff keeps a lot more faithfully to the facts of the case than Hamilton - there is none of the nonsense, for instance, of putting a body in a trunk - but I was still dubious, at first, about the idea of turning a murder into a musical.
In the event, its dark eroticism and high tragedy lend themselves perfectly to the medium. There is an edgy, Sondheimian quality to Dolginoff's music and lyrics which draws one inexorably into the warped world of the two damaged and dangerous misfits, to the extent that one soon begins to feel complicit in their revolting crime.
George Maguire's is a domineering, if vain and pretentious Loeb, and Jye Frasca's Leopold is a study in helpless infatuation. The former made his name in Rent and Fame, the latter in Jersey Boys and Wicked. One can see why the pair, having proved themselves in such big budget extravaganzas, now yearn to be taken seriously as actors.
Upon the stage of this little theatre - a place that offers no refuge to the talentless - these two gents, under the exacting direction of Guy Retallack, prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they are proper, grown-up Actors with a capital A.
It is definitely not for the squeamish, but, take it from me, there is no production currently running in the capital that is more intelligent, atmospheric and haunting than this. How gratifying to find it, off the beaten track, such a gleaming gem.
Kevin Spacey thrilled us all right as the lawyer Clarence Darrow (at the Old Vic, reviewed here). One of his great triumphs was saving two young men – Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – from the gallows after they murdered a 12 year old for kicks . The story convulsed the world ninety years ago this month: for some unfathomable reason media always act astonished at crimes committed by affluent, preppy young people (they were law students) . You'd think that personality disorders, selfishness, bored sadism and mutual egging-on to outrage were exclusive to the poor. But L & L have been studied and written about ever since, and this musical treatment by Stephen Dolginoff (joint production with Greenwich Theatre) has met fascinated approval here and off- Broadway.
It feels more operatic than musical-theatre, eschewing big distinctive numbers for a piano upstage (Tom Turner turning in an epic non-stop performance) and atmospheric, intense, threatening music. Which, interestingly, emerges seamlessly from being a sort of film-noir background to accompanying recitative moments and suddenly swooping arias from the two young men. The storytelling is good – and not over-sensational, though the moment when Loeb, alone, lures the unseen boy Bobby into his roadster is truly horrible.
Leopold, the seemingly weaker teenage personality of the two, narrates in retrospect from the day of his fifth parole hearing 34 years later, with a longdrawnout mournful melodic line (repeated often) "I went along with him".
That, in fact, is the emotional core and interest of the piece. Thrill-killing itself – and Loeb's famous obsession with "Neetchey" and becoming a Nietszchean genius superman – is the most popular source of intellectual dissection of the case, and is covered here. But the real interest is (as in Sondheim's PASSION ) is the awful, cannibal power of obsessive sexual love. For Leopold the lonely geek, wonderfully realized in a fine debut by Danny Colligan, is homosexually adoring of the preening, psychopathic Loeb – a nicely nasty smooth performance by Jo Parsons. Leopold signs a 'contract' to be his idol's efficient accomplice in all crimes – arson,burglary, vandalism, finally the murder – in return for embraces and friendship. The fawning, shirt-stripping, begging 'thrill me' moments are oddly powerful, not least when after one victory (Loeb ground down into bored, unwilling sexual contact) sees them lying together with Leopold's narrative line 'it was later that night – about five minutes later".
Poor old Leopold clearly never got much bang for his buck. The only moment when this nasty, humiliating dependence tips over into undignified audience snorts of hilarity is early on, when they are enjoying a warehouse fire they have started , and the acolyte is worried fire engines might come and catch them. Loeb draws him close and purrs "You're the lookout – tell me if you see anything..BIG and RED coming". Ouch.
But as it darkens and the effect of this blind adoration and folie-a-deux becomes more complex, any laughter fades in appalled contemplation. As well it might.
This is a show of tiny and exquisite detail: from the perfectly tailored suits to the era-evocative brass telephone and leather valise which populate the spare but highly effective set.
The now infamous case of the 1924 'thrill killers' Leopold and Loeb is a well-mined source of theatrical material, from Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play Rope, in turn transformed into Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of the same name, to this, Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 musical Thrill Me.
Told as a series of flashbacks, this atmospheric two-hander begins at Leopold's fifth parole hearing in 1958. Previously tight-lipped, but now desirous of release, Nathan 'Babe' Leopold finally decides to divulge the full story of the murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks, committed simply 'because they could'. The claustrophobic relationship between the pair is explored to great effect in this well-constructed script and the lengths to which Leopold will go in order to satisfy the Nietzsche-worshipping Loeb's depraved craving for thrills are tightly written.
Director Guy Retallack has resumed the helm of this impressive production that comes from the same creative team that originally staged the show's UK premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre and there is much to admire in this intense, intimate and atmospheric
piece. The richly drawn narrative progresses swiftly, seamlessly and with great clarity under Retallack's direction and at its conclusion one is left wanting more.
To its credit, Thrill Me resists the urge to descend into lazy melodrama and manages to steer well clear of cheap sensationalism. This is a show of tiny and exquisite detail: from the perfectly tailored suits to the era-evocative brass telephone and leather valise which populate the spare but highly effective set. Including effective lighting and sound and an impressively talented cast, this is a classy affair throughout.
Much of the credit must go to the casting of both Leopold and Loeb. Danny Colligan captures impressively Leopold's seeming vulnerability in his perfectly controlled performance and Jo Parsons' psychopathic Loeb is beautifully judged. Both are in possession of fine voices, especially Colligan whose tone is exquisite. It may be incongruous to express how entertaining this production is considering the darkness of the subject matter; but utterly, grippingly, totally absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable it certainly is. A show of infinite quality.