The newly formed Havok Theatre Company has produced a winning musical, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, written and composed by Stephen Dolginoff. The musical is more like a chamber opera with heavy musical-comedy technique (though there are few laughs).
The plot is, of course, familiar: two rich kids in Chicago in 1924 commit “the crime of the century,” kidnapping and killing fourteen year old Bobby Franks for the “thrill” of it. The case became sensational and the boys' Jewishness, their homosexual relationship, the plea for mercy by the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and the sheer banality of the crime have become fodder for many books, some plays, movies (Rope and Compulsion), and much speculation. In fact, a new play based on actual transcripts and newly culled information is playing down the street at the Blank Theatre.
The two-hander musical Thrill Me is beautifully acted by Stewart Calhoun and Alex Schemmer. Schemmer’s character, Richard Loeb, is caught up in the idea of committing the “perfect crime.” Nathan Leopold (Calhoun), obsessed with Loeb, makes a blood pact with Loeb to do whatever Richard wants in return for sexual favors. The trick in this story is the twist at the end, when it is revealed that Leopold made sure they were caught so they could spend the rest of their lives together in jail. The question becomes who manipulated whom.
Schemmer has Loeb’s good looks and evokes both his excitement about committing a crime and his absolute dependency on Leopold to carry it out. Calhoun is chilling as Leopold, giving an outstanding performance. Their singing voices aren’t as strong as they might be but they handle the music well.
Nick DeGruccio has done a splendid job of direction. He seems to be everywhere these days doing terrific work. My only question here was the sensual nature of most of the scenes – lots of kissing and clutching. More subtle aspects of their fatal attraction are diminished. But the sexual tension is palatable, drives the piece, and adds to its perversity. DeGruccio's staging is fast-paced and flowing.
The simple but multileveled set by Tom Buderwitz and the moody lighting by Steve Young perfectly fit the atmosphere of the piece. The able accompaniment is by Michael Paternostro on piano. At the Hudson Theatre by the Havok Theatre Company through March 16.