Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Also see John's review of After the Revolution

Bryan C. Ortega and
Christopher Michaels

Rising Action Theatre presents the musical Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story with book, music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff. It is based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the so-called "thrill killers" who murdered a young boy in 1924 in order to commit the perfect crime. 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.

The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with the 1958 Joliet Prison parole hearing of Nathan Leopold. He tells the parole board the facts of the highly publicized crime that sent him to prison thirty-five years earlier. In this, his fifth parole hearing, he reveals more than ever of the tale behind the crime, hoping it will lead to his release. In the telling of the tale, he relives his relationship with Richard Loeb leading up to their incarceration.

In 1924 Chicago, nineteen-year-old Nathan Leopold and eighteen-year-old Richard Loeb are privileged and well-educated young men who find themselves in an oddly co-dependent relationship. Nathan is hopelessly in love with Richard, whom he idolizes and craves to the point of distraction. While Richard participates in an intimate physical relationship with Nathan, he holds him at bay with his emotional distance. Yet, because Nathan knows him better than anyone else (including his dark side), he needs him and the unconditional adulation he provides.

Richard, who voraciously reads Nietzsche, is obsessed with the theory of "the Superman." As a Superman, he subsequently believes that they are, on account of certain inherent superior qualities, exempt from the ordinary laws which govern men. They are therefore not liable for anything they may do. With Nathan at his side he 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 spree—a perfect, unsolvable, random killing. A seemingly na├»ve Nathan is so desperate to be with Richard that he agrees. Nathan would go to surprising lengths to be sure that they remain together. In the end he goes to lengths that surprise even Richard.

A minimal set is all that is required for this production. Christopher Michaels admirable goes back and forth from the lower-voiced, mature man of 53 at the 1958 parole hearing to the youthful 19-year-old Leopold of 1924. Michaels gives a wonderful performance riding Leopold's emotional roller coaster throughout the show. His need for Loeb is raw, his romantic fervor for him made palpable by the longing and injured looks cast at Bryan C. Ortega's Loeb. Ortega creates a Loeb that is the perfect sociopath: handsome, intelligent, confident and commanding. He convincingly manipulates his relationship with Loeb in scene after scene to his own advantage. His smiling delivery of the song "Roadster," as he charmingly lures their victim into his car, is his best moment in the show.

The music and script are married well in this show, so that both fit together neatly while furthering he plot. Still, there are no songs that one will leave the theatre humming, perhaps because of the difficulty of the score. Though accompanied by only a pianist (Ivy Adams on the night attended), the music would seem to require a keen ear on the part of the singer to stay on track. Both Michaels and Ortega sing well, and it is to their credit that there are many moments in song when one is not really aware of the fact that they are singing, as much as that they are acting.

Staging by director Andy Rogow is remarkable. A two-person musical with no intermission is hard enough to keep interesting. Now make it about two homosexual murderers in a dysfunctional relationship, and try to maintain the tension and passion without being offensive or trite. The physicality between the two actors reflects the mercurial nature of their relationship from scene to scene, always feeling organic. This is a small but mighty show that should not be overlooked.

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 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. They embarked on a series of crimes culminating in the kidnapping and murder of Bobby Franks, who was the neighbor and second-cousin of Richard Loeb.

The crime 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 a heart attack.

Thrill Me opened Off-Broadway at the York Theatre in 2005. 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.

Stephen Dolginoff is an award-winning, New York City based playwright-composer. In addition to writing and composing the musical Thrill Me, he also played the role of Nathan Leopold in the original production. For his 1994 musical One Foot Out the Door he received a Bistro Award for Outstanding Book, Music & Lyrics. Dolginoff has also written the musicals Most Men Are, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Panic.

The Rising Action Theatre production of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story will be appearing at the Sunshine Cathedral through November 20, 2011. The Sunshine Cathedral is located at 1480 SW 9th Ave in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The Rising Action Theatre, Inc. is a small professional theatre hiring non-Equity performers. The Rising Action Theatre is dedicated to promoting and educating the public in diversity and tolerance for all people through theatre arts. It presents plays with multi-cultural themes, and works of social relevance. For season information and tickets you may reach them by phone at 954-561-2225 or 800-595-4849, or online at

Nathan Leopold: Christopher Michaels
Richard Loeb: Bryan C. Ortega
Voice Overs: The Parole Board: Clelia Myers & Oscar Cheda, Radio Newscaster: Larry Buzzeo

Director: Andy Rogow*
Music Director: Eric Alsford
Scenic Design: Brett Webb
Lighting Design: Eric J. Cantrell
Sound Design: David Hart
Costume Design: Peter A. Lovello
Stage Manager: Sean Altenburg

*Indicates member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

Photo: David Sexton

See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- John Lariviere

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