Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Set in Chicago, nineteen-year-old Nathan Leopold (Michael Westrich) and eighteen-year-old Richard Loeb (Conor Walton) are privileged and well-educated young men who find themselves in a dangerously co-dependent relationship. Nathan is hopelessly in love with Richard, whom he idolizes to the point of obsession. Because Nathan knows him better than anyone else, and accepts his dark side, Richard craves Nathan for the unconditional adulation he provides. While Richard sporadically participates in an intimate physical relationship with Nathan, he holds him at bay with a cool emotional distance.
Richard, who voraciously reads Nietzsche, is obsessed with the theory of "the Superman." As Supermen, he subsequently believes that they both are exempt from the ordinary laws which govern ordinary men. Due to their inherent superior qualities they are therefore not liable for anything they may do. With Nathan at his side Richard embarks on a series of crimes, such as burglary, theft and arson. His need for Nathan, though still mostly pragmatic, grows over time. Each crime provides Richard with pleasure, until he gradually becomes bored. He then proposes raising the stakes to murder as a logical progression to their crime spreea perfect, unsolvable, random killing. A seemingly naïve Nathan is so desperate to be with Richard that he agrees to his outrageous plan. Richard counts on the fact that Nathan would go to surprising lengths to be sure that he and Richard remain together. But in the end Nathan unveils a hidden plan of his own outrageous enough to surprise even Richard.
A minimal set is all that is required for this production, and that is what we are given. It is clean, efficient, and well lit. A live pianist plays the challenging score with ease. Though director Skye Whitcomb gave a fundraising plea for a new sound system for the theatre during the curtain speech, the sound was well done for this production.
Thrill Me's seamless pacing is impressive to be sure. With just two actors on stage, the transitions from the present day Leopold at his parole hearing, to the telling of the torrid tale that led to his incarceration via flashbacks, are remarkable smooth. Both actors are adept at propelling the story forward with a sense of urgency. Westrich gives a wonderful performance. He creates a character that has tangible and identifiable layers, and sings the role with both vocal skill and emotion. He has some awesome acting moments in the songs "Life Plus 99 Years" and "I'm Trying To Think."
A dashing Conor Walton creates a Loeb that is the ideal sociopath. He is attractive, intelligent, and unwaveringly confident. He cruelly manipulates his relationship with Leopold, using the sexual attraction he knows his friend feels for him to get whatever he wants from him. Walton needs to be reined in just a bit at times, as his line delivery can come off as contemptuous toward Leopold. And he looks as though he's about to hit him at any given moment. Though Loeb's inner conflict about his own sexuality may result in anger, and he may not be that attracted to Leopold, he's smart enough to cover it up. In addition, a softer, smiling countenance during the song "Roadster" would make it even creepier. Walton does go a long way in establishing the tension (both good and bad) between the two characters, however, and creates a lasting image of a man with a menacingly twisted mind.
The story of Leopold and Loeb has been the inspiration for several works in film, theater and fiction, such as the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of the same name, the 1956 Meyer Levin novel Compulsion (also made into a film), and the 1988 John Logan play Never the Sinner. Thrill Me opened Off-Broadway at the York Theatre in 2005. Stephen Dolginoff won an ASCAP Music Award for the score of the show, and was nominated for New York's Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and Best Music Score, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Best Off-Broadway Musical. In 2009, Dolginoff received a Los Angeles Garland Award honorable mention for the music and lyrics of Thrill Me. The Los Angeles production was nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Musical in an Intimate Theatre. In addition to writing and composing Thrill Me, Dolginoff also played the role of Nathan Leopold in the original production.
The real life Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb were two wealthy University of Michigan alumni and University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks in 1924. The two were undeniably exceptionally intelligent. Nathan Leopold was a child prodigy who spoke his first words at the age of four months, and claimed to be able to speak 27 languages. At nineteen, Leopold had already completed college (graduating Phi Beta Kappa) and was attending law school at the University of Chicago. Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan, with plans to enter the University of Chicago Law School. The two lived in the same wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Kenwood on the south side of Chicago, and met while attending college.
True to the musical, the two believed themselves to be Nietzchean Supermen exempt from the laws of men. Bobby Franks was the neighbor and second-cousin of Richard Loeb, and the murder was motivated both by their desire to commit a perfect crime and for the money from the kidnapping ransom. Once apprehended, they retained Clarence Darrow as counsel for the defense. His summation at their trial, which eloquently criticized capital punishment as opposed to rehabilitation, resulted in the two receiving a sentence of life plus 99 years in place of the death penalty. On January 28, 1936, Richard Loeb passed away while in prison, after being attacked by a fellow prisoner with a straight razor in the shower. Nathan Leopold was released on parole in 1958; and died in Puerto Rico on August 29, 1972 of a diabetes-related heart attack.
The Outré Theatre production of Thrill Me will be appearing through June 8, 2014, at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center Studio Theatre. The Outré Theatre Company began in 2011. They are an emerging professional theatre company hiring local Equity, and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their vision is to be a theatre that nurtures the creative spirit of individuals and the community, through original and established works, utilizing a variety of mediums to engage the souls and imaginations of the artists and the audience. Their mission is to create theatre which stimulates thought, provokes reflection, and encourages activism. The Studio Theatre is located at 201 Plaza Real, at the south end of Mizner Park, in Boca Raton, Florida (the former site of the International Museum of Cartoon Art). Show times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. For tickets and information you may call them at 954-300-2149 or reach them online at Outrétheatrecompany.com.