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Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How many modern musicals manage to remain thrilling - in the real, tingling sense of the word - years after you first encountered them? At best, it's a short list; chills dissipate faster in the theatre than anywhere else. Yet two years after its New York premiere, Stephen Dolginoff's Thrill Me still sends chills down the spine while it assaults with waves of violent and sexual heat.

These precipitate temperature changes couldn't be more welcome in a climate that of late has been flooded with irrelevant musical comedies of questionable quality and jukebox musicals of no quality at all. Here, the musical storytelling is suffocating in the best sense; Dolginoff pulls no punches in exploring the crimes of 1924 Chicago "thrill killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The York Theatre Company's production of the show, running through June 25, is, like the story it's based on, uncompromising and intoxicating.

It's also the best version of Thrill Me yet seen in New York. If you missed the show's first incarnation at the 2003 Midtown International Theatre Festival or the York's concert production last summer, don't fear. Director Michael Rupert has unleashed even more of the work's harsh potential, and helped the show evolve from a speculative study of moral depravity into a harrowing chronicle of youth and love gone viciously wrong.

For it's Dolginoff's contention that each of the duo's crimes was a crime of passion. Nathan (Matt Bauer) is so hopelessly attracted to his lifelong friend and schoolmate, the popular, promiscuous Richard (Doug Kreeger), that he agrees to an increasingly serious string of crimes including arson, breaking and entering, and eventually the kidnapping and murder of a teenage boy. But though Richard, infatuated with the writings of Nietzsche, is certain that he and Nathan are "superior" to the forces they're striving to outwit, a series of careless mistakes threatens their freedom, their lives, and their relationship.

The outcome, because of the historical record, is never in doubt. At Nathan's first appearance, pleading for his freedom before a parole board (his unseen interrogators are voiced by Stephen Bogardus and John McMartin), the story's end is already a given. But neither Dolginoff nor Rupert allows the journey to be in any way conventional, opting instead for a relentless energy that grips you and doesn't let you go: Sharp shocks of book scenes erupt from Nathan's memory and flow into one another in a complex, stream-of-consciousness style; Nathan breaks from the action to comment on his events or feelings in dialogue and song, at one point seemingly existing in two times at once; and James Morgan's imposingly spooky set - consisting of pillars, boxes, and a glass false proscenium - and Thom Weaver's outstanding lighting deliberately bring only Richard into clear focus.

Dolginoff's compositions, however, do rich justice to both characters and their twisted behavior. While the songs almost entirely eschew humor, except in the most heavily ironic sense (the romantic "Nothing Like a Fire" is sung while a warehouse burns), they remain melodic and, in many cases, catchy, with the era's vaudeville influences occasionally echoed in the piano-only accompaniment (played by music director Eugene Gwozdz). There's an unexpected youthful playfulness to "A Written Contract," in which they lay out the terms of their deal (crime for sex); the title song bursts with erotic urgency; Nathan's "Way Too Far" is a moment of quiet, haunting remorse; "Afraid" is Richard's soul-searching equivalent, sung when it's already too late.

That song is a particular high point for Kreeger, who's dynamic from beginning to end. Whether singing the seductive "Roadster" to lure in his prey, leading the self-aggrandizing "Superior," or coaching Nathan for his police questioning with "I'm Trying to Think," he's never less than a dynamic, gleefully sensual force of simmering evil. While Bauer is generally effective, he doesn't reach Kreeger's heights, and skews toward the ghoulish and otherworldly when he should be the show's grounding force. This somewhat undercuts Nathan's character, and doesn't allow the revelation of his final, brutal secret to have its full, devastating impact.

In every other way, however, this is as robust and engrossing a musical production as you'll currently find in New York, and one of 2005's two must-see musicals. The other, Altar Boyz, is as far removed from Thrill Me as is imaginable, but both shows underscore Off-Broadway's inestimable importance to the future of musical theatre. Dolginoff's adventurous benefactors at the York are helping him get the audience he needs to fulfill his promise as one of our next major composing talents. When he reaches that level, it will be due, in no small part, to this brilliant, unforgettable musical.

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Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Through June 25
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes with no intermission
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's - Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix