By Aaron Krause
Nobody in their right mind would condone the titular character’s actions in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Yet, we can sympathize with this fictional serial killer. That is mainly because we understand his motivation and experience enough of his humanity to stop short of demanding his death.
However, in the taut, tense, and haunting musical, Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, it is difficult to care much about real-life killers Nathan Leopold (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb (1905-1936). That is because composer, librettist, and lyricist Stephen Dolginoff fails to inject either individual with emotional depth or redeeming qualities.
Nevertheless, Dolginoff’s musical is riveting. That is mainly due to the show’s mood-enhancing music, fast pace, intense passion, and our desire to see Leopold and Loeb receive justice.
To close out its 2022-23 season, Island City Stage (ICS) has mounted a gripping professional production of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story. It runs through Sept. 3 in the company’s intimate performance space in Wilton Manors. The production runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
Performers Dylan Goike (Loeb) and Kevin Veloz (Leopold) generally prove to be strong singers and actors; they disappear into their roles. In addition to the mostly strong performances under Christopher Michaels’ astute direction, which leaves room for comic relief, musical director Eric Alsford contributes robust and flawless live piano accompaniment. Also, designers Ardean Landhuis (scenic and lighting), David Hart (sound), and W. Emil White (costumes) provide an appropriate environment for Leopold and Loeb’s true story to play out.
While the show’s music is not memorable, its somberness, intensity, and pulsing quality reinforce the gravity of the true tale. Dolginoff musically captures an appropriately foreboding ambience from the show’s first notes.
Goike and Veloz wrap their strong and expressive voices around Dolginoff’s evocative music, which may call to mind the songs of Franz Schubert and Kurt Weill.
While the show’s creator may have stretched a few facts, his basis is the true story of Leopold and Loeb, whom the world came to know as the “Thrill Killers.” Dolginoff focuses not on the crime’s details, but the relationship between the two young men.
The show starts in 1958 with one of Leopold’s parole hearings. Parole board members had already heard the case’s facts. Now, they want Leopold to explain why he and Loeb (killed years before in prison) murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks. Then, Dolginoff flashes back to the 1920s. That is when Leopold and Loeb were wealthy, soon-to-be law students in Chicago. At the time, Leopold felt passionate about Loeb. Meanwhile, the latter seemed obsessed with crime and excitement. The pair created a secret agreement to satisfy each other’s needs. In particular, if Leopold agreed to commit crimes with Loeb, that young man would satisfy Leopold’s hunger for sex and intimacy.
Soon, Loeb convinced Leopold that the two were above society and embodied German philosopher Frederick Wilhelm Nietzsche’s idea of “Superman.” Therefore, according to Loeb’s thinking, he and Leopold were brilliant to the point that they should be able to commit a heinous crime without authorities catching them. In the musical, the pair start out small by starting fires and burglarizing places. But, before long, Loeb convinces Leopold that they should murder a child because it’s a major enough crime to fit their superiority and brilliance.
“Burglary and setting fires are too trivial for supermen like us,” Loeb says. “We are above society. Murder is the only crime worthy of our talents, Nathan. Don’t you want to do something important with your life?”
As the action leads up to the killing, it becomes clear that Leopold, while wealthy and smart, is particularly needy. Specifically, he seems to need Loeb, although the musical never specifies why. Perhaps a song in which Leopold explains his intense attraction to Loeb would help flesh out both characters.
While the musical makes it clear that Leopold is needy, Dolginoff portrays Loeb as little more than malicious and arrogant. Judging from Loeb’s callous remarks in the musical, he comes across as a sociopath.
For instance, following the murder, Loeb tells Leopold, “Twenty feet from here, in a culvert pipe, lies a 14-year-old whose time was ripe, just a useless kid with no face and thus they could never tie a thing to us.”
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story includes a couple of brief moments during which Loeb conveys hints of humanity. However, Goike fails to believably inject his character with even a hint of vulnerability or sensitivity. To his credit, though, Goike, with brown hair and intense dark eyes, brings to vivid life an intense, arrogant young man. Goike’s Loeb is a mocking, merciless individual who keeps taunting Leopold because he knows he can get away with it.
While Goike’s Loeb is loose, intense and confident, Veloz nails Leopold’s nervous and hesitant demeanor. Through Veloz’s wide, expressive dark eyes, which blink nervously at times, we keenly sense the character’s fear, horror, and neediness. At one point, Leopold grabs Loeb’s leg as though he is hanging on for dear life. He hugs and feverishly kisses the limb.
Under Michaels’ solid direction and intimacy director Nicole Perry’s expert guidance, the pair of actors assume positions that communicate their characters’ relationship to each other at given times. During a particularly heated exchange, the performers stand practically nose to nose and Loeb roughly handles Leopold. During another scene, the men are intensely and lengthily kissing each other. When Veloz’s Leopold senses a peaceful moment, he starts to smile or lean into Loeb to become intimate with him. However, at the last second, Goike’s Loeb moves away or turns his expression to one of disapproval or anger. Also, at times, Loeb stands atop a structure such as a bench. This can symbolize how highly the character thinks of himself.
The production’s program does not credit a projection designer, although projections aid in the storytelling. During the abduction scene, the actor portraying Loeb pretends to interact with the youth. While no actor plays the youngster, a photo of him appears against the set’s backdrop. This not only helps create the illusion that the boy is present, but gives us an idea who he was.
Landhuis’s set design is more suggestive than realistic. Red brick walls and prison bars appear upstage to suggest a prison setting while details such as a shelf, boxes, desk, chair, and bed suggest the homes of either young man.
For lighting, Landhuis illuminates the stage dimly or brightly, depending on whether a scene takes place during the musical’s present tense or in flashback. Landhuis’s use of color in his lighting design is also appropriate. What resembles fog or smoke drifting across the stage lends the proceedings a noirish, mysterious look.
White’s period costumes and other period details in the set help to place us in either the 1920s or 1950s. The show alternates between the time periods, and it is always clear about the particular era.
If you are looking for an in-depth character study of Leopold and/or Loeb, you will not find it in Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story. However, the music helps make this show thrilling, although the lyrics tend to be ordinary. The songs include a strong number about a real fire, which also neatly suggests “heat” (passion) between the two young men.
While the production isn’t perfect, ICS’s effort includes passionate, realistic performances—the kind of strong portrayals we have come to expect in South Florida live theater.
Island City Stage’s production of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story runs through Sept. 3 at the theater’s location, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Running time 90 minutes without an intermission. Tickets start at $40. For tickets, go to www.islandcitystage.org or call (954) 928-9800. You can also email the box office at email@example.com.