“Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story” is a brilliant pocket battleship of a musical which tells the gruesome but gripping story of the thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young law students and homosexual lovers who killed a young boy for the thrill of it. It is a true story which happened in Chicago in 1924 and is written by Stephen Dolginoff. Think of Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (1979) to get a sense of the dark and disturbing world “Thrill Me” delves into. Matthew Parker’s pared down direction means that every scene grips and propels the plot forward leaving us always wanting to know more. Stephen Dolginoff’s book, music and lyrics are of such quality that comparisons with Sondheim are pertinent. “Thrill Me” left me thrilled and appalled, intrigued and fascinated, attracted and repulsed, but always engaged with this fascinating tale of love and transgression.
Bart Lambert as Nathan Leopold is quite superb. His ability to switch linguistic register as he moves back and forth between the parole board hearing of 1958 and the year of the crime in 1924 is remarkable. Clearly a brilliant actor he utterly convinces as both the young Nathan, desperate to be with Richard and as the old man telling his story to the parole board. The deep husky voice of the older man and the high pitched voice of the young Nathan are delivered with stunning precision and verisimilitude and of course he can sing. Jack Reitman plays the Nietzsche obsessed Richard Loeb with the perfect mixture of haughty disdain and cold indifference. Having convinced himself that he is a superior man above society and trivial matters, such as morality, he manipulates Nathan into joining him on his journey for ever more dangerous thrills. Bored with arson and burglary he uses his sexual hold over Nathan to entice him into carrying out a hideous kidnapping, ransom and murder. The relationship between Richard and Nathan has similarities to that between Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
The acting and singing are of the highest quality as the plot unfolds in flashbacks between 1958 and 1924. The lyrics are superb, every number is a mini play in itself. Tim Shaw’s musical interpretation is spine chillingly atmospheric. Rachel Ryan has designed a set which just goes to show that less is more. In a very confined space and with even fewer resources she has put together a set which allows the play to flow. Simplicity as they say is genius. Chris McDonnell’s lighting is terrific. Especially in the arson scene “Nothing Like a Fire”. The voiceover recordings from Dewi Hughes and Bryan Pilkington as the parole board and the radio news announcer respectively inject a godly, scary, eerie voice from above or outside breaking into the delusional bubble that Nathan and Richard have lost themselves in. Dostoevsky in “Crime and Punishment” (1866) presented us with the murderer Raskolnikov and asked the question: What does it feel like to kill somebody? “Thrill Me” asks the same question. The difference is that “Thrill Me” does it in just 80 minutes with superb acting, gripping music and haunting lyrics.
“Thrill Me” is a modern masterpiece of musical theatre. Dense and richly textured, subtle and nuanced it almost needs several viewings to give up its treasures. I would highly recommend starting by going to one this week at The Hope Theatre, the best fringe venue in London.