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Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Had it not been for Bob Fosse, John Kander, and Fred Ebb, it's possible that the stage musical version of Maurine Dallas Watkins's play Chicago would end up a bit like Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, the new musical about 1924 Chicago "Thrill Killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb that is having its premiere production at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

But, while it's important to note that Thrill Me has been conceived, produced, and executed to the highest standards, many Broadway composers today (or in any other era throughout the musical's history) would never dare to attempt what Stephen Dolginoff does here. A show so dark and unrelenting that it has a tendency to make Sweet Smell of Success look like Guys and Dolls in comparison, Thrill Me is a completely continuous, integrated musical exploring every facet of Leopold and Loeb's hearts and minds. If you can accept that you'll need a flashlight - and probably a shower - to make it through it all, Thrill Me is unquestionably worth seeing.

That's primarily due to Dolginoff, who simply must be considered a major talent with his writing of this show's book and score. He's come up with one of the tautest, most exhaustive musical character studies ever to hit the boards in New York, with only two characters (Leopold and Loeb themselves, played by Christopher Totten and Matthew S. Morris respectively), fewer than two dozen songs, and less than 90 minutes to do it all. But while many writers would flounder if given two and a half hours, Dolginoff succeeds admirably in almost every way.

True, he has a few clunker lyrics and a penchant for writing overly-obvious rhymes, but his songs dramatize the characters brilliantly. Loeb defining the almost sexual satisfaction he derives from wrongdoing in "Nothing Like a Fire" is chilling, and Leopold turning it around to request sexual satisfaction from Loeb in the duet "Thrill Me," is an ideal musical turnabout. Heart-wrenching solos, extended musical sequences of heavy plot or ordinary dialogue, thorough explorations of a would-be criminal's psyche, and even a bitterly ironic final number ("Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years," the title of Leopold's real-world book about his experiences) are all present, and expertly done.

Throw in Broadway veteran Martin Charnin's crisp, film noir-style direction, Gabriel Kahane's smart piano playing and musical direction, Thom Weaver's electrifying work with lights (he's given only "consultant" billing in the program, but his work here is thoroughly artistic and vital), an excellent performance from Totten, and a pretty good one from Morris, and the formula is just about perfect.

So are the show's construction and execution, though it has one major built-in problem: two college-age men murdering a young boy in cold blood and then attempting to escape the ramifications of their actions is going to be a tough sell for most people, even once they've bought their tickets. Neither character is at all sympathetic and the music is too cohesive to allow for showy numbers of any sort. The show also has few laughs and no intermission or applause break, so alleviating any of the tension the show creates is pretty much impossible; the audience at the performance I attended soldiered on valiantly for the first hour or so, but became increasingly restless when the show started getting darker still thereafter. It's not an easy show to watch.

And it certainly can't be an easy one to perform. Morris tends toward the stiff side, but captures Loeb's malaise well, while Totten's nervous yet lovestruck Leopold is almost masterful in its layers and complexities. But they both display great facility in this lengthy and draining game of emotional and intellectual one-upmanship, handling the dialogue and songs with remarkable talent, stamina, and - it must be noted - no artificial amplification.

They're two of the hardest working musical performers in New York at the moment, and audiences brave enough to take in Thrill Me will find themselves faced with more than enough challenges of their own. However history judges Thrill Me - as one of the most ambitious musicals of its time, a harrowing dramatic tour de force for its two rising stars, or a colossal conceptual flop - it is positively unforgettable and, under any circumstances, absolutely not to be missed.

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Fourth Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Through August 3
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200