Performed by Bart Lambert and Richard Loeb
Book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginofff
Directed by Matthew Parker
Music directed by Tim Shaw
Produced by Benjamin Alborough for The Hope Theatre
2 – 20 April
Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass
On May 21, 1924, two young college students in Chicago committed what the press of the time would go on to call the crime of the century; this story is told across eighty gripping minutes in Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
The musical’s framing device is Leopold’s parole hearing, decades after events, as he recounts the crime to the parole board in the hope of earning his freedom. Leopold tells of his early relationship with Loeb and the lead-up to their crime. He paints his younger self as an impressionable young man, utterly enthralled and entwined with his friend-cum-lover-cum-rival, the dangerous and manipulative Loeb. Obssessed with themselves and each other, the young men are convinced of their own brilliance, and Loeb in particular with the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. He envisions himself the Übermensch, above society and its laws. When a slew of petty crimes fails to satisfy this superiority complex, Loeb decides to hunt the ultimate thrill: murder.
Intense and intimate, Thrill Me is an inventive two-handed show that lives and dies on the considerable talents of its two leads. Nathan Leopold is brought to life by the expressive Bart Lambert, who juggles well the role of unreliable narrator, ably affecting the manner of a much older man when addressing the parole board, and seamlessly slipping back into the frenetic energy of the younger Leopold. Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is seductive and serpentine, a linen-suited Mephistopheles who cracks just enough to let the uncertainty and fear show through when needed.
The book itself is adequate to the task, with enough interesting numbers never to lag, but don’t expect to see any of its songs topping the charts. Cursory research into the true Leopold and Loeb story shows that there is little in the way of consensus regarding the two men’s characters or the exact nature of their crimes and relationship, waters muddied by almost a century of rumour, hearsay and pop-cultural obfuscation.
The fixation on the sexual relationship between the two men is an unfortunate feature of the musical. Although it provides an engrossing anchor for the narrative, there is little enough queer representation in modern media, that telling such a grim, twisted story in such an overtly homoerotic way seems in bad taste, if not tone-deaf and salacious.
Designer Rachael Taylor has ensured that, visually, the production is at the upper end of what can be expected of pub theatre. A wood-paneled set evokes the basement of a bygone era, walls papered with newspaper clippings pertaining to the murder, all joined by web of red string stretching across the walls and overhead, cleverly suggesting the classic “conspiracy wall”.
With the rise and rise of the true-crime genre across pop culture, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb story is of the moment, engaging throughout, and executes a surprising and satisfying twist in the eleventh hour. Fans of unusual, modern musical theatre, or those with a penchant for the macabre are advised to catch it at the Hope Theatre before it escapes on April 20.
Previous review: Oliver With A Twist, Sh!t-Faced Showtime @ Leicester Square Theatre