It's a grim affair all right, real musical theater noir. And Uptown Players' production, the regional premiere of Thrill Me, doesn't pretty up the proceedings with any unnecessary glitz. The set is as stark and spooky as a jail cell. Director Bruce R. Coleman's staging is stripped down to the essentials. One piano (impressively played by Kevin Gunter at the performance reviewed) accompanies two young actors blending their voices in 16 songs that tell a lurid story of obsessive love and murder.
If those voices were up to the demands of composer Stephen Dolginoff's difficult score, this Thrill Me would be sublime. But Chad Peterson, who plays Nathan "Babe" Leopold, and Kevin Moore, playing Richard "Dickie" Loeb, give intense but uneven performances. They lock into the youthful energy and sexual heat in their characters but lose their way around close harmonies and hard-to-reach high notes. Still, the story is so fascinating and the relationship between the characters so erotic, Thrill Me delivers 80 minutes of riveting live theater despite the lack of vocal power.
Leopold and Loeb were the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the 1920s, teenage killers who considered themselves intellectually and morally superior to other mortals. Loeb, a devotee and misguided interpreter of Nietzsche's "Übermensch" theories, convinced Leopold they could plot and carry out the perfect kidnap and murder. Their victim was a 14-year-old neighbor boy, Bobbie Franks, lured into Loeb's car and later found dead in a culvert outside Chicago, stripped naked and doused with acid.
The murderers were caught quickly—Leopold dropped his expensive glasses at the crime scene, among other slip-ups by the perpetrators—and once the press picked up the story and famed attorney Clarence Darrow was hired to present their legal defense, they became celebrities.
By all accounts these were promising young men with genius-level IQs. Leopold was an expert ornithologist, spoke five languages and started college at 14. He met 15-year-old Loeb, the son of a Chicago lawyer, at the University of Chicago where the two were among the school's youngest and wealthiest undergraduates. By the age of 18 both had gone on to law school but had kept up their clandestine homosexual relationship, with Loeb acting as master to Leopold's willing slave. For kicks they committed acts of vandalism together, setting warehouse fires and burglarizing homes, crimes Leopold took part in to earn Loeb's trust and for the reward of the sexual attention he craved.
The show begins with Leopold addressing an unseen parole board 34 years into his "life plus 99 years" prison sentence. For the first time, he's willing to address the last unanswered question about the Franks murder: Why?
Thrill Me then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, with the occasional jump forward to Leopold's explanation of his motive for murder, which is even more twisted than you can imagine. It's a tale of sexual dominance and submission, but Leopold's version of events puts into doubt just who was dominating whom and why.
Musically, the songs rise right out of the narrative, Sweeney Todd-style. The boys sing the contents of the ransom note as a duet, and Loeb acts out how he'll get his hands on Franks in the haunting "Roadster." Dolginoff, who wrote script, tunes and lyrics, is better with the seductive musical line than he is with the words, which tend toward the plodding, forgettable rhyme. Sings Leopold to his lover: "I'll do what you want me to/There's no me if there's no you."
The high point of the score is Loeb's lament, a song called "Afraid," as he awaits sentencing. Turns out the superman is super-terrified of swinging on the end of a noose. (He and Leopold would be spared thanks to Darrow, who in his famous nine-hour summation convinced the judge that death sentences would deprive the world of two great minds that could be rehabilitated.) That song is also actor Moore's best moment, as he quits struggling to find the melody and instead talk-sings it, which he's far better at.
Thrill Me offers a dark and intriguing glimpse into the relationship between one young man desperately in love with another young man who's more in love with evil. See the show to discover which is which.
From there it's on to killer comedy, thank goodness. Enough already with the dramas about sociopaths, Thrill Me being the third to open in the past month.
Classical Acting Company, now based at Plano's Arts Centre Theatre, started its season with a ponderous Death of a Salesman but now sails into a Georges Feydeau farce, Every Trick in the Book. If there's anything tougher than performing a precisely timed, wildly physical French farce without flubbing a single punch line, it might be performing it on a rainy Sunday afternoon in front of only 13 people. But CAC is nothing if not thoroughly professional, so they went all out at the sparsely attended matinee of Trick I attended. They played each of three 30-minute acts as if there were a full house, and they succeeded at making a baker's dozen of us theatergoers laugh ourselves into heaving, wheezing spasms.
This is French farce as it should be—light, sweet and flaky as a Ladurée pastry and every bite scrumptious. The plot is concocted from the usual ingredients in the Feydeau cookbook, including some mistaken identities, heaps of marital infidelity, a few carefully placed backflips, pratfalls and swoons, and wordplay about a character named Tay-Tay having a tête-á-tête and saying ta-ta.
Directed by Regan Adair with special attention to diction and to the lickety-split rhythms that make such comedy work, Trick doesn't miss one. Leading lady Emily Gray, playing Angele, a remarried widow who suspects her new hubby, Ribadier (Neil Carpenter), is fooling around, is wonderful, hustling her enormous bustle all over the stage in hilarious faux hysteria. Ribadier tries to assure her that he's faithful, but she knows otherwise, having consulted a journal kept by her first husband that details the many lies and excuses a man uses when he's really getting some on the side. Example: An "executive board meeting" is the euphemism for "orgy."
Staying one step ahead of his missus, Ribadier resorts to hypnosis, putting Angele in a deep sleep every time he steps out. But his system is thrown out of whack by the arrival of an old suitor, Thommereaux (Mark Shum), who's returned from a stint in Java and can't get his fill of Angele. Wearing glasses from the Mr. Magoo collection, Thommereaux makes a silly spectacle of himself in every scene.
In the smallest but funniest role, a clumsy coachman who chases Angele's chambermaid, the rubber-limbed Matt Lyle invents ingenious ways to trip over and into every chair, table, windowsill and doorway on Jennifer Owen's elegant, heart-themed drawing room set. Finally, hampered by two arms in slings and other injuries, Lyle turns a doorknob with his toe and pulls it shut with his teeth, a move straight out of the Dick Van Dyke school of comedy brilliance.
This is arguably CAC's best production yet and certainly their best-looking one. Costume designer Aaron Turner drapes Gray's hourglass figure in yards of lush red and green silks and dresses the men in handsome velvet smoking jackets and well-fitted waistcoats. Even the shoes are divine.
Numbed by all the recent shows about murderers, I relished every giddy minute of Every Trick in the Book, a comedy perfectly timed to chase all the blues away.