Let it be known: I’m not a true crime kind of gal. As such, the opening night of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story at the Black Box Theatre was perhaps the most unsettling theatrical experience I’ve had in recent memory. I couldn’t quite get past the fact this was a true story. While it has certainly been dramatized – and as a musical, for Pete’s sake! – I found this somber tale quite disturbing.
Told as a flashback, with a parole-board member (Doug Kutzli in voice-over) asking probing questions, composer and book writer Stephen Dolginoff’s saga concerns teenage University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold (Daniel Williams) and Richard Loeb (Adam Cerny), and how their petty crimes, used as unconventional foreplay, escalated to the 1924 murder of a young boy. It’s dark, foreboding subject matter, so director Lora Adams kept the theatre dark and foreboding. There was no pre-show music, the lights were dim, and even during the show, Reader reviewer Roger Pavey Jr.’s lighting design never even tiptoed toward brightness.
I was first struck by Williams and the sincere depth he brought to Leopold. Williams was an excellent choice to play an older man looking back on his teenage years – and, to be fair, teens tend to make stupid and rash decisions. Yet I was never able to fully understand why Loeb had such a manipulative pull over Leopold, because Cerny’s portrayal epitomized evil. There was nothing remotely appealing or endearing about Loeb from my perspective; the character was belittling and ridiculing toward Leopold during the entire show.
If Williams’ portrayal made Leopold into something of an eager puppy, then Cerny’s take on Loeb was that of a crocodile. Cerny was on stage with an evil glint in his eye and an ever-present, self-satisfying grin. This isn’t to say that Cerny wasn’t great in this role, because he was. It’s just that the Loeb character is so exceedingly unlikable it was difficult for me to reconcile how Leopold would allow himself to get entangled in Loeb’s appalling ideas. It’s honestly too bad that Leopold, given the century-ago setting, didn’t feel as though he could confide in, or find a relationship with, someone else. Because if a guy is asking you to commit a crime in order to be together? He’s just not that into you.
Loeb, for the most part, was an enigma in Thrill Me, obsessed with Nietzsche and consumed with family hatred. Cerny takes this psychopath idea seriously and fully commits while singing, to boot. Early on, there were a few notes that felt like they pushed Cerny’s range, but both he and Williams delivered beautiful vocals even if the actual lyrics were incredibly forgettable. Ron May served as Adams' musical director, and although the music is depressing in context, it didn’t leave me with a single memorable song. In fact, the only song I recall was one I assume is also called “Thrill Me.” A whole score with generous use of minor keys sets the overall mood from the get-go.
The ways in which Dolginoff’s music truly succeeded was in driving the plot along and putting some of the emotional decisions into context. I’m not sure whether the Leopold's obsessive nature toward Loeb was imagined or factual, but if it weren’t for the music, I don’t know that the plot would have been nearly as interesting, even as a true story.
Thrill Me's discomfort didn’t take long to creep into the theatre and it held throughout the production: I often consider the use of a fog machine to be excessive, but within their context here, the effects felt just right. In truth, throughout the show, Kutzli’s voiceover keeps asking for more context: Why did this horrific event take place? And it seems like a silly question, because we, as the audience, continually see that Leopold is unwavering in his compulsion to stay in Loeb’s good graces. In the Black Box's production, it’s easy to see how Leopold might be convinced to do nearly anything. Adams staged scenes to visually accentuate the magnetic pull Loeb had on Leopold, exemplified by Cerny remaining in place while Williams hightailed it over to wherever his Richard was.
This was enough insight to satisfy my understanding – while I didn't agree with the choices being made even a little bit, I could accept them. Yet I’d love more answers to the questions the parole board wasn’t asking. Did Leopold and Loeb truly consider themselves to be superior men and above the law? (Because this crime did not seem all that well planned out.) Was there actually love as the driving motivation? But nothing could have prepared me for the twist at the very end, in which even the relative likability of Leopold is suddenly brought into question.
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story is chock full of talent: Cerny and Williams are brilliant in their roles, and I truly enjoyed watching May play the piano throughout the presentation. This true story does, however, leave you with the unease that there are people in the world who will commit crimes just to see what happens. So I’d advise you to park your car somewhere well-lit and bear in mind that, statistically, you’re probably going to be fine.
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) through February 24, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 and visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.