For those missing the dark side of musicals during this wave of frothy escapism, there’s “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story,” Stephen Dolginoff’s unthrilling two-hander that depicts Chicago’s notorious Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s. But don’t blame Nietzsche for this debacle. His morality-free philosophy may have set the murderous plot in motion, but the culprit behind this dastardly deed is another: The writer-composer-lyricist dunnit.
The story of how two wealthy young men randomly pick out a boy to kill just to prove their “superior” intellectual breeding and status has been fodder for three notable films — Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion” and Tom Kalin’s sexy and stylish indie “Swoon.” With its subtexts of obsession and homosexuality wrapped in a world of privilege, the tale has fascinated and disturbed auds since it became one of the earliest candidates for the trial of the (20th) century.
This version begins with an elderly Leopold (Matt Bauer) at his parole hearing, making the case for his release to the voices of unseen judges (John McMartin and Stephen Bogardus). “We want to know why,” they say. The story then flashes back to the 19-year-old Leopold’s perverse and pliant relationship with his arsonist-sadist-nihilist friend and lover, Richard Loeb (Doug Kreeger).
But in a musical format — and such a spare and underpopulated one at that — nothing new is added, and a lot has been lost. Potentially compelling and varied characters such as Clarence Darrow, who defended the men, as well as the moneyed families are all offstage. Also absent is the giddy, repressed and homophobic sense of the times in which they lived.
What we are left with are two depraved villains telling their psychosexual story in recitative or bombastic mode. The narrative gallops along as any good crime tale should, but the mostly sung-through music is generic, forgettable pop opera with clunky lyrics such as “The heart is a muscle I can’t explain.” Paging Woody Allen.
The production, directed by Michael Rupert, never achieves a consistent tone for the aud to embrace. For a story that attempts to dig into the dark depths of the libido, it’s not a particularly sexy show. Attempts at wicked humor fail as well. “You know what a little misdemeanor does to me,” coos Loeb to Leopold as they watch a warehouse fire they’ve set, failing to grasp the felonious extent of their work. (So much for Nietzsche’s superior intellects.)
A song such as “If We Killed My Brother John” (with the lyrics “I’d get a bigger room” or “He’d never touch my things”) comes across as “Sweeney Todd” lite. Other times the dialogue borders on parody: “How did it come to this,” wail the panicked pair after killing the kid and stuffing the body in a drain pipe. “I’m not going to have my law career ruined by you.”
With no additional characters onstage, the weight of the material falls on the shoulders of the show’s two performers. Bauer is suitably needy and nervous as Leopold and has a strong, urgent tenor. But Kreeger exhibits little of the charm, sensuality and subtle manipulation that would seduce his smitten friend to do his every sadistic bidding.
There’s a minor twist in the end when the masochist turns master after the thrill has gone (accompanied by the creepy love song “Life Plus 99 Years”). But it’s contrived and none too logical, given how the murder and its aftermath are played onstage.