Reviewed by JW Arnold for South Florida Gay News
Young love can be uplifting and empowering, but for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two Chicago teens growing up in the 1920s, their romance would become twisted, a tale of domination and submission and ultimately, murder.
“Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story,” which opened last week in a production by Outre Theatre Company at the Cutural Arts Center in Boca Raton’s Mizner Park, is based on the true story of these men, the so-called “thrill killers” who murdered a young boy in 1924 in order to commit the “perfect crime.”
A 2003 chamber musical with a book, lyrics and contemporary score by Stephen Dolginoff, the story is told in a series of flashbacks, beginning with Leopold’s fifth parole hearing in 1958.
Leopold is seated on a dark, sparsely decorated set dominated by black flats and boxes that will later be reconfigured. As the bright spot comes up on Leopold (Mike Westrich), the parole board (the voices of Oscar Cheda and Sabrina Gore) quizzes the convict. Once again, he lays out the facts of his crime, but the parole board seeks the deeper motivations for participating in “the crime of the century.” But, then it dawns him, this time he could reveal more, perhaps leading to the parole he has sought so many times before.
He recalls reuniting with his childhood friend, Richard Loeb (Conor Walton). Despite the fact they shared an adolescent romance, the Nietzsche reading Loeb, has matured into a cold, calculating sociopath, eager to manipulate his willing acolyte to participate in ever escalating crimes. Loeb only offers his physical affection after Leopold signs a contract — they both ironically dreamed of becoming lawyers — in blood. The price is his contrition, first as they burn a warehouse, later rob a home while the owners sleep and then plot Loeb’s ultimate crime, murder.
Whether unconsciously or not, Leopold loses his glasses at the crime scene and, of course, the expensive imported frames lead the police right to the men. Despite Loeb’s threats, Leopold eventually gives in to the police interrogators and the duo land in the Joliet Prison, surprisingly spared the death penalty, thanks to the cunning strategy of their lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
Westrich first gained widespread notice as the gay prison camp inmate in Island City Stage’s multiple Carbonell Award-winning production of Dan Clancy’s “The Timekeepers” last fall. Again, he offers a nuanced performance, struggling with the moral compromises he is forced to make in order to win Loeb’s approval.
Walton, a veteran of many critically acclaimed Slow Burn Theatre productions, gives a chilling performance as Loeb, perhaps the best of his career. The audience rightly squirms in their seats as each of his increasingly evil plots is hatched with Walton’s sly grin and piercing eyes.
Both are at their best while singing Dolginoff’s alternately soaring and searing melodies. Under the music direction of Kristen Long, who also accompanies on the piano, their voices blend perfectly as Loeb pulls Leopold into each escalating emotional transaction.
Director Skye Whitcomb’s intimate staging is further accentuated by the stark lighting design by Stefanie Howard. Howard brilliantly sets the stage for the flashbacks as Loeb appears in a flash only to disappear into foggy memories. She also recreates the headlights of Loeb’s Packard coupe, putting the audience into the eyes of the bewildered child who would later be murdered and mutilated.
“Thrill Me” is a disturbing show about disturbing subject matter, but in the hands of Westrich, Walton, Whitcomb and the Outre team, it’s also a powerful piece of musical theater that sheds light on a heinous crime that should not be forgotten.