The manipulator, the manipulated, and Nietzsche

Thrill Me

Book, music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff
Directed by Martin Charnin
Midtown International Theatre Festival/Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex Stage II
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by David Mackler

They're just your average couple -- one loves too much, one uses the other without regard to feelings, they bicker, they bargain. And oh yeah, they kill and get caught. So book them on Jerry Springer. Except that Thrill Me is subtitled The Leopold and Loeb story, and it's a musical by Stephen Dolginoff, directed by Martin Charnin. And while the story is a familiar (and often told) one, what's most shocking is how engrossing the damn thing is, due mainly to music that serves the characters and the audience, and direction that sweeps it all along with a casualness that belies the craft. There isn't even an opportunity to applaud until the very end, when the audience can finally exhale the tension that's been built up so astutely.

And the star here is Dolginoff's music. It traces the hopes, fears, dreams and desires of Nathan Leopold (Christopher Totten) as he, in flashback, tells the parole board how it happened that he and Richard Loeb (Matthew S. Morris) killed and mutilated Bobby Franks thirty-four years ago. This is a very 21st-century telling of the tale, and Nathan's love for and desire to please Richard is plainly set out. The fact that he's made to be the sympathetic hero of the story puts the audience in an uncomfortable position, but Totten's naked longing cannot be resisted by anyone who's ever had a feeling. That the object of his affection is completely unworthy merely compounds the anguish. The neediness of Nathan's angry and threatening "Everybody Wants Richard" is followed by "Nothing Like A Fire," wherein Richard describes how burning down a warehouse, a "warm, romantic, raging fire," will put him in the mood. Crime gets Richard hard, Richard gets Nathan hard, and that's enough for Nathan to go from "Not another fire!" to being an accomplice. Their arrangement gets set down in "A Written Contract," and sealed in "Thrill Me," where it's clear that "thrill" means something quite different to each one.

But this kind of synopsis doesn't convey how the words (even with Dolginoff's fondness for unexpected rhymes) and music keep the well-known story interesting. Occasional shifts back to the parole-board hearing keep the focus on the why -- why did Nathan go along -- and the answer is no less wrenching for its being simplistic. Because after all, the end result is the grotesque random murder of a young boy, all because a magnetic college student has taken Nietzsche too much to heart.

And if Morris played Richard a little too much by rote, and as if he's fresh from enunciation class, Dolginoff gets over that hurdle too. The best parts of the book come from the subversion of the expected -- the songs "Contract" and "Thrill Me" set up a dichotomy that suggests a bit of "who's zoomin' who" in this duo which is carried as far as it can go by surprise revelations at the end. If the historical record doesn't support that plot development, it still suggests how far Dolginoff could soar with a plot entirely of his own making. Because an author who's not afraid to have the audience laugh with delight at Richard's distress when confronted with "Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years" might very well be fearless. And so a tale that's hardly uplifting becomes just that because of the talent of the author, and delight in its slick presentation. No small achievement, that.

Box Score:

Book 1/Music 2/Lyrics 2
Directing: 2
Performing: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 David Mackler