Sunday, April 12, 2009

What the Critics Had to Say about Thrill Me

Partners in Crime

By Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly, 09/30/2008

The image of the tempter has haunted mankind for centuries. In the book of Job, Satan tempts God to test the faith of pious man. Christ refuses Satan's offer of the world. But who would remember Faust if he had not accepted Mephistopheles' offer?

These connections swirled in my mind as I watched the recent, gripping production of Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story at Marigny Theatre. Leopold and Loeb were the teenage 'thrill killers" who committed their era's "crime of the century."

Thrill Me is a musical. It's not a Chicago-type of song fest in which leggy chorines weave a low-life fantasy celebrating the glamour of crime. It's not quite Brechtian either. Although Brecht was taken with the allure of crime, he injected caustic left-wing political and social criticism.

Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff, despite the songs, is not light entertainment. It surprises by taking the two adolescent murderers seriously and showing us the dynamic that propelled them to the ghastly, purposeless crime that made them famous. I typically resent being sentimentally manipulated, but I did not feel anything of the sort was afoot. Hannah Arendt, writing of the Nazis, spoke of the banality of evil. Maybe that's what makes this weird story so troubling and evocative.

When the play begins, the stage is dark. Musical director and accompanist Jim Walpole plays the overture on a baby grand piano. Nathan Leopold (Eric Michael Liddick) stands behind a bare podium. He answers questions from off-stage voices. We don't realize it at first, but these questions come from parole officers at Joliet prison in 1958. The parole board wants to know why Leopold committed the crime 34 years ago. "A child killed a child," Leopold says sadly. "I'm an old man now." But why did he do it? "It wasn't a dare or a whim. It's simply that I went along with him," meaning his partner Loeb.

The statement oversimplifies what happened, but there's something essentially true about it. For Leopold, the thrill means give me love, affection and sexual gratification. For Loeb, the thrill is about breaking laws, taking chances, proving his superiority to the mass of men — being a Nietzschean superman.

Most of the play is in flashback as Leopold tells his story. Wearing a dark suit, he sits and stares through binoculars. Richard Loeb (Joshua Peterson), wearing a yellow suit, enters and teases him disdainfully. He clearly controls the friendship, and it's clearly more than mere friendship. Leopold and Loeb are upper class, privileged and intelligent, and they attended college together.

Leopold rebels against mistreatment by his hero, but his desire for Loeb is too strong. He craves sex and will do anything to get it. Here we enter an odd, but all too understandable dominance/submission analysis of the tragedy. Nietzche shares the blame with Aphrodite.

Loeb is the mastermind, but he doesn't know what sort of crime will both tantalize him and prove his superiority. He starts with arson, moves on to burglary and finally arrives at the idea of murder. Leopold tries to restrain him, but Loeb is mentally unbalanced in a way that requires both the crime and Leopold's obsequiousness. The two eventually write a contract defining their roles and sign it in blood.

But how will they commit the perfect murder? Aside from the genius of the murderers, there's a crucial twist. They will pick a boy they have no connection with. There will be no leads or motive.

Loeb, in perhaps his most Mephistophelian moment, approaches a schoolboy and offers him a ride in his Packard roadster. This is the boy's last ride. He is bludgeoned with a crowbar and left in a culvert.

Arrogant superiority has its limits, however. Leopold's glasses are found near the body, and as luck would have it, they are equipped with a special kind of hinge. The police have a critical clue.

A tip of the hat goes to director Glenn Meche for focusing on the human truth behind the sordid headlines. Liddick and Peterson gave moving, unvarnished portraits of these misguided souls. Timm Holt's murky lighting was an effective aid to the abstract staging, as were Donald James' apt costumes.

A Sturtle Recommendation

By Richard Read, September 26, 2008

If you're in New Orleans, I have two suggestions for you this weekend:

1. See our new show, DIE! MOMMY! DIE!, dammit.

2. Also see Thrill Me, playing its final weekend at the Marigny Theatre.

Now, I know what you're thinking about that second one: a musical drama? A new musical drama? About Leopold and Loeb? Believe me, I know. I had the same concerns when I went last Sunday night. But honestly, by the time they started plotting Bobby Franks' death, I was totally, 100% hooked. Loeb's seduction of Franks is especially good, as was the subsequent unraveling of the duo's Nietzschean plot. The production was simple and spare and intimate and engaging and inventive--exactly my kind of show. Maybe not the kind I tend to work on, but the kind I love to see in my off hours.

Yeah, I know the weather's pretty, and sure, you ought to get outside a bit while the getting is good. But would it kill you to sit in a darkened room with a cocktail and enjoy some hot, thespian action? Sheesh.

THRILL ME, Surprisingly, Does

By David Cuthbert
Times Picayune, September 19, 2008

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Stephen Dolginoff's "Thrill Me," a musical about 1920s "thrill killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The premise sounds like parody and, indeed, the musical teeters on the brink of satire. There are a few intended, darkly ironic laughs in the lyrics and dialogue, but there also were times when I was the only one laughing.

What revelation can there be in a tale already told to death in countless books, plays, movies and TV shows? ("Rope," "Compulsion," "Swoon," even "Law & Order"). Well, the surprise was mine, because composer/lyricist/book-writer Dolginoff delves into the sado-masochistic psychology of the teenage law student slayers, using song as interior monologues and to heighten emotionally charged, confrontational scenes.

This chamber musical clocks in at 80 intermissionless minutes, with an accumulative hour that is filled either with songs or underscoring, providing a relentless momentum. Apart from some big melodic moments, the music is Sondheim-influenced sprechstimme, with some Kurt Weill overtones. There is also an aberrant little tickle of a theme running throughout, declarative "wanting" arias and a great neurotic waltz-song at the end.

Besides the novelty of musicalizing the story, there's another trick up Dolginoff's sleeve: a startling, fictionalized ending that turns the boys' accepted slave-master relationship into a topsy-turvy folie à deux that is unexpectedly potent.

In Glenn Meche's excellent staging at the Marigny Theatre, the two-character show has been cast with unfamiliar -- but not for long -- singing actors, who complement each other in every way.

As Nathan Leopold, Eric Michael Liddick is the smart little boy who grew up to be a brilliant nebbish. A bespectacled bird-watcher, a college grad at 19 and already in law school, he has a secret life in which he is in thrall to 18-year-old smart-ass sociopath Richard Loeb. Leopold sings, "Everybody wants Richard, but not the way that I do." The force and power of Liddick's singing indicates that this need moves beyond the sexual to serious obsession.

Joshua Peterson's Loeb is Lucifer as the self-infatuated golden boy. He has looks, intellect, money and, in Peterson's performance, exudes a contemptuous charisma as he doles out sexual favors to Leopold to keep him as both accomplice and witness to his Nietzschean superiority. His "Roadster" song, laden with innuendo as he entices their 14-year-old victim into his car, rivals Sondheim's Wolf singing "Hello, Little Girl" in "Into the Woods."

Jim Walpole's nonstop piano artistry and fervent musical direction give a visceral pull to the uneven score, providing a strong foundation of support for the voices.

Ultimately, "Thrill Me" is not the supplicant's plea, but a command, and one fulfilled at the Marigny Theatre.

REVIEW: THRILL ME, Marigny Theatre

By Al Shea
Steppin' Out, WYES-TV 12

Theatre Marigny has seen its dreams come true with a genuine no-holds barred hit: the dramatic true story of Leopold and Loeb, those two notorious teenage killers of the 1920’s, called THRILL ME. Although this material has been seen in movies, with Orson Wells’ Compulsion and later Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, it was our first time to enjoy its full power live, on-stage. What an experience!

Ace director, Glenn Meche, who had a triumph with his impressive Valhalla, wins new laurels now for his sharp insights into the two leading characters and a pacing as sure and steady as the Super Chief. Meche has cast expertly too with Eric Michael Liddick as the weak “poor little rich boy”, hopelessly in love with the stronger, sinister Joshua Peterson as his manipulative partner in crime. Together this is the best stage duo seen on local stages in some time. They were so into these characters it was creepy.

Accompanied on the grand piano by sturdy, talented Jim Walpole they complete a trio of super local talents who help bring new respect to The Marigny Theatre.

Donnie Jay James and Timm Holt, as Executive Producers, have mounted a musical drama, with all technical aspects proving first-rate on a par with any local theatre.

Don’t miss THRILL ME - a terrible true story of two over-privileged college students who, through boredom - turned killers. The night I saw it, the audience seemed enraptured and sat stone-quiet through the 90 minutes of the awesome action on stage. BRAVO to all connected with this spectacular theatrical achievement. THRILL ME plays week-ends at Theatre Marigny, 2240 St. Claude and Marigny. Do not miss it!

Top Rating - 4 Claps
My Rating - 4 Claps

THRILL ME: the Leopold & Loeb Story

Review by Patrick Shannon III

There is another shocking play being produced as a joint effort by The Marigny Theatre, LLC, and To Do Productions. This little venue in the Marigny is continually creating local theater history by doing things other companies wouldn’t even dream of producing such as Naked Boys Singing!, and you can imagine what one saw bobbling and wobbling all over the stage during that run. I might add it was a sell out and done quite professionally. Now they have veered away from non-gratuitous stares at bare butts, balls, and flaccid flinging undyfillers to a musical about unspeakable thrill crimes committed by Leopold and Loeb: arson and murder - 1924 Chicago.

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, the macabre musical written by Stephen Dolginoff (including the book and lyrics) inspired (?) by what the press billed as the “Murder of the Century” at a time when the nation could be thrilled and intrigued by the bashed-in-head murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks in those “roaring twenties” days by two wealthy young men who were lovers, Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. and Richard R. Loeb. They claim they committed the crime to prove that they could commit the perfect crime. This subject might lend itself better to an opera, after all we have operas in which characters immolate themselves, Jewish women get boiled in great vats of oil, and dictators rape and torture at will.

The music of Mr. Dolginoff shows great promise leaning in a marvelous classical direction, however he chose to waste his considerable talents on a show about the idle rich so bored with their lives that they decide to spice it up with the murder of a 14 year old boy. Musical Director Jim Walpole played the difficult and intriguing score on a baby grand piano with great aplomb and panache.

Glenn Meche directed this odd and somewhat horrifying musical with a minimum of stage movements upon a minimalist set. He and his vision for the script seemed to open up a door that allowed for a blending of both horror and beauty. And beauty does abound in this show.

Timm Holt did the effective lighting design and the set pieces were constructed by William Powell.

Eric Michael Liddick played Nathan Leopold with grace and a sly and mysterious manner. His facial expressions were very telling and his body language demonstrated good stage presence. As his performances continue he will no doubt totally smooth out any unnecessary elements. As is he did a fine job. He has a beautiful singing voice and a handsome youthful appearance.

Joshua Peterson played Richard Loeb like Shakespeare’s role of Iago no doubt due to his experience doing some of the Bard’s roles. He immediately makes it clear that he thinks he is in control, is a superior being, and a total egomaniacal sociopath. His psychosis leaps out of his character unlike his adoring worshiping lover, Nathan Leopold, who manifests his kinks with a subtle technique, making the end of the play all the more surprising and fulfilling. He is also a handsome actor with a fine singing voice. Patrons, don’t miss this oddly fulfilling show. It’s hypnotic, edgy, and totally au courant. Kudos to a great cast and tech crew!

THRILL ME: the Leopold & Loeb Story
By Brian Sands
Ambush Magazine, September 9, 2008

For those not familiar with Thrill Me’s story, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were two upper class teenagers in Chicago who, inspired by Nietzschean philosophy and love for his friend, respectively, tried to commit the perfect crime, the 1924 murder of a 14- year-old boy. They committed the crime but it was far from perfect. Both were spectacularly caught within days, getting away with their lives only through Clarence Darrow’s famed legal and oratory skills.

These facts would seem to lend themselves to being turned into a galvanizing show, but Stephen Dolginoff’s pedestrian book is matched only by his songs which musically all sound more or less the same, examples of late 20th century generic musical show tunes. If Loeb’s There’s Nothing Like the Sight of Something Burning rises above the rest to give a penetrating insight into his character, the one about the contract they came up with, sex for complicity, was a real snoozer.

It’s only after the crime has been committed that Thrill Me comes marginally to life when desperation & fear, and cowardice on Loeb’s part give added colors to the musical’s wan palette. An unexpected twist at the end having to do with motivation was about the only thrill of the script which even at only 80 minutes felt too long.

This is one instance where a little added sex between the protagonists would not only have spiced things up but perhaps given some insights into the relationship’s perverse dynamics. And why wasn’t Dolginoff’s music more reflective of the 1920’s era? One wonders what Kander & Ebb would’ve done with such material. Oh yeah, Chicago.

One can’t fault the production for not being able to overcome the work’s flaws. Under Glenn Meche’s unobtrusive direction, Joshua Peterson, as Loeb, aptly portrayed a completely wacko, real shit. Without overdoing it, Peterson captured the charisma of the self-confident and self-possessed, and made understandable how Leopold could’ve been in thrall to him.

Eric Michael Liddick’s Leopold was properly nebbishy, but it took a while for him to infuse the character with much personality and be more than a mere doormat. Musical director/accompanist Jim Walpole provided a propulsive force at the piano, preventing any sagging loss of momentum from ever setting in.

More power to Marigny Theatre and To Do Productions for presenting something new and different like Thrill Me: the Leopold & Loeb story. I just wish this tale of two of the most notorious murderers of the twentieth century had indeed thrilled me.

A Demon Oozes Charm

By Michael P. Cahill
OnStage Magazine, Winter 2008-2009

An unlikely musical hit was produced recently at the Marigny Theater by the adventurous To Do Productions. “Thrill Me: The Leopold And Loeb Story,” sets to music the familiar tale of the 1924 random thrill-killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by precocious, well-to-do Jazz Age geniuses Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

After the 80-minute, intermission-less songspiel by Stephen Dolginoff, few came out of the theater humming “If We Killed My Brother John” or “Life Plus 99 Years.” But, as played by accomplished accompanist and musical director Jim Walpole and staged by director Glenn Meche, the music and action propel the tale swiftly and inexorably toward its inevitable conclusion.

Co-producer Donald “Donnie Jay” James designed the costumes, including an unforgettably dazzling yellow period suit for Loeb. Timm Holt, co-producer and owner of the theater, designed the evocative lighting for the sparse set and spare story.

The production was well cast. Making his local debut, Eric Michael Liddick portrayed Leopold. This writer has always felt that Leopold was the driving force of the deadly duo whose bid for the “perfect crime” was foiled by chance, human error and hubris. The script explores the not-so-subtle sado-masochistic underpinnings of their relationship and acknowledges law student Leopold as the pair’s ultimate mastermind. The career-making role, however, belongs to Joshua Peterson as Loeb. After relocating to New Orleans, Peterson has spent the past year in the chorus of various musicals. Those days may be behind him. With a fine voice, classic good looks and a definite stage presence, Peterson perfectly portrayed Loeb’s self-image of the ultimate Nietzschean Superman. There is no stretch of the imagination to see how women, men, law school admission counselors and, well, anyone might have become obsessed with his surface, despite the rotten substance below. A devil in a pleasing form, Peterson’s Loeb is a devious, manipulative, petulant, psychopathic teen, who, above all, oozes charm.

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