They say when you commit a murder you make at least 25 mistakes and after it’s over, you’re lucky if you remember 5 of them. But in Stephen Dolginoff’s “Thrill Me, the Leopold & Loeb Story” at the Greenwich Theatre, it only takes one for justice to prevail, or does it?
It’s 1958 and Nathan Leopold (Jo Parsons) has been in prison for murder for 34 years. Today he is facing a Parole Board (voiced by Lee Mead and Patricia Quinn), for the fifth time, asking to be released on licence. The Board can’t make a decision until they have found out more information on Nathan’s crime, particularly the ‘Why’. We go back to Chicago in 1924 when a seemingly shy, socially awkward 19 year old Nathan is starting the summer break birdwatching and waiting desperately for his 18 year old friend Richard Loeb (Ben Woods) to return from college. Eventually Richard does arrive, but he has changed since Nathan last saw him. Richard has been reading German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and his concept of supermen (Übermenschen) — transcendent individuals, possessing extraordinary and unusual capabilities, whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that bound the unimportant, average populace. Richard has convinced himself that he, and to a lesser extent his friend Nathan, is one of these ‘supermen’ able to live outside of the law due to his own ineffable superiority. Richard is also a young man who gets physically excited by doing wrong, simply because he can. Nathan, deeply in love with Richard, goes along with this in order to be with him and the two sign a contract in their own blood saying that each promises to give the other whatever they need to thrill them.
The boys then go on a bit of a spree – arson, shoplifting, theft, breaking and entering – escalating the thrill level for Richard, but not necessarily the sexual rewards for Nathan, until one day they decide to commit murder. Knowing that, as Supermen, they cannot be caught by the flat-footed police, they sincerely believe that they will be able to devise and carry out the ‘perfect’ murder. Given the opening, it’s fairly obvious that they are wrong and, indeed the boys do get caught quite quickly, thanks to a lucky break for the police and, following what has become, a highly notorious trial, they are shipped off to prison. Now, Nathan shares his final and most deeply held secret with an astonished Richard as they are transported to Joliet to spend the rest of their days – or at least Life plus 99 years – together
Based on a true story, “Thrill Me” is such a wonderful piece of musical theatre. Two actors and accompanist (Tom Turner) hold the audience spellbound in their hands for the entire 90 minutes of the show. There isn’t an interval – and thank goodness for that – but my attention never wavered from the stage as Nathan told his story. Writer Stephen Dolginoff seamlessly mixes speech and song to dramatically recreate the lives of Nathan and Richard. He could have really exploited their sexual relationship or gone into detail about their murder of Bobby Franks but resisted all temptations to glamorise the story or make the boys more heroic/mentally mucked up than they really were in order to get sympathy from the audience. Director Guy Retallack and Lighting Designer Richard Williamson have put together a slick show that doesn’t rely on complicated sets or lots of props to illustrate the story. And this is down to the quality of the two actors with their insightful and intimate portrayal of the two boys.
Jo Parsons does a superb job switching between 1924 and 1958 Nathan – his voice getting older as he moves between the years and I believe the audience get a real understanding of this complex man who I actually found myself liking by the end. I’m afraid I can’t say the same about Richard Loeb. His treatment of Nathan – cold and aloof, but just giving enough away to keep him on side – is superbly portrayed by Ben Woods who plays the haughty, manipulative Richard amazingly well and although I didn’t like the character I totally believed in him. Together, Jo and Ben really give the audience a superb understanding of the two bored little rich kids who wanted to get their kicks in the strangest of ways.
So, let’s finish with my final thought on “Thrill Me, the Leopold & Loeb Story” As I left the theatre, I was trying to work out how, in a system that only allows a maximum of 5 stars, I could give it more. Unfortunately I can’t so I will have to give it the five and sum the show up in only one word – WOW!
Review by Terry Eastham
Chicago, 1924. Two wealthy college kids. One obsessed with crime, the other love. A contract signed in blood. They believed that they’d committed the perfect murder – but had they?
Stephen Dolginoff’s chamber musical Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story examines the relationship between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both of whom appeared wealthy, normal and intelligent, training to become lawyers with comfortable lives ahead of them. Through a series of flashbacks we are taken on the young men’s journeys, one who believed he was above the law, obsessed by the philosophy of Nietzsche to the point where he believed he was a ‘Superman’ above the law, beyond good and evil. The other – a loner – becoming a willing accomplice, empowering Loeb in his misdemeanours, his reward, Richard’s time, attention and conditional love.
Thrill Me has been captivating audiences since 2003 and has a string of awards and nominations to its name, this production alone was awarded 8 nominations, including the whatsonstage award for “Best Off-West End Production”. The production also garnered wonderful reviews from both press and the public alike.
Wed 8-Sat 18 April 2015
Friday 10th April 2015