Last month, I happened to turn on my TV to an episode of PBS' American Experience titled “The Perfect Crime,” which told of the senseless, 1924 murder of a young Chicago boy. The crime was committed by two teenagers, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, and I was awestruck not only because of the horrific details of the killing, but also by the fact that I had never before heard of it. Then, a few weeks ago, I was assigned to review Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, a musical I was unfamiliar with – but one, thanks to PBS, boasting a story I now knew.
I'm not sure what is it about true-crime stories that draws us in, almost as voyeurs, as we witness evil acts yet find ourselves engaged in every gritty detail. And with a book, movie, TV show, or grandly scaled theatre piece such as Sweeney Todd, we can read or watch as dastardly deeds are done, yet are always kept at a safe distance from those deeds, giving us a sort of protection. The suspenseful, powerful Thrill Me, however, is a musical that would appear to work best in an intimate setting such as the one currently provided by the Circa '21 Speakeasy, where that safe distance shrinks all too uncomfortably … which is likely the goal.
The Speakeasy’s production of the award-winning Thrill Me – with its book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff, who also played Leopold in the original production – showcases two of our most talented local actors as they sing/tell the tale of a true Crime of the (Last) Century. This is the story of a toxic relationship, self-hatred, obsession, and murder, and Dolginoff takes this narrative about fatal adulation and skillfully draws you in. Under the direction of Lora Adams, the adept actors/singers Thomas Alan Taylor (as Leopold) and Adam Cerny (as Loeb) create a performance that is at once chilling and engrossing.
Thrill Me's atrocity is committed by two wealthy, intelligent, aspiring law students who set out to commit the perfect murder: 18-year-old Loeb, obsessed with crime and Nietzsche, and 19-year-old Leopold, obsessed only with Loeb. Their story unfolds in flashback as Leopold relives his account of the killing's details before a parole board. He begins his retelling with his infatuation for Loeb, and moves on to their unlawful acts that include arson, theft, and murder – and it all ends with a surprising twist.
Designed by director Adams, the sparse set consists of weathered, crate-like benches and a brick-wall backdrop, efficiently setting a bleak tone. An off-stage keyboard played by musician Ron May provides a baleful moodiness that compliment the singing, and the tech team of Mike Turczynski and J.J. Wielenga provide lighting effects that add a dusky effect. Audio designer Doug Kutzli, meanwhile, is responsible for the voices heard as the off-stage parole board, which sound simultaneously curious and ominous.
Taylor rides a roller-coaster of emotions as he recounts Leopold's memories, and portrays the submissive figure with tormented credence; the actor was so authentic that I felt a tinge of sympathy toward his character. Cerny, however, elicited no sympathy. His controlling sociopath was played with intensity and creepiness when needed, and at the February 23 preview I attended, one of the show's best, most spine-chilling moments was Cerny’s interpretation of the song “Roadster,” in which Loeb lured his young victim into his car with a furtive smile and knowing sneer. Dolginoff's music and lyrics, of course, help tell the tale, and much like opera singers, Thrill Me's leads display the ability to act while singing. They may not have the strongest voices, but Taylor and Cerny are able to deliver, without microphones, songs that are understandable, audible, and melodic.
For two actors to be able to hold an audience’s attention for 90 intermission-less minutes is a credit to the author, the staging, and the performers' talents ... and this production earns credit for them all. This is not a musical in which you will leave the theatre humming a tune or feeling a close identification with the characters. (I hope!) But Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story is a musical that takes an infamous crime and turns it into a tale of seduction, obsession, and evil, creating a theatre experience that also has a perfectly apt title, because thrill me it did.
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story runs at the Circa '21 Speakeasy (1818 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through February 27, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting TheCirca21Speakeasy.com.