There's a small gem at the heart of "Thrill Me," the terse, staccato musical that is in its final weekend at the Gaslight Theatre, and the two-person tale, based on the murder that defined raw crime stories for the 1920's, is a terrific little play. The "thrill killing" of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago , by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, was an early crime of the century and trial of the century, with Clarence Darrow representing the young killers.
Stephen Dolginoff's stark, somber story reflects Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler on the writing side, Stephen Sondheim in the music. There are moments that pay homage to "Sweeney Todd." Leopold was 18, Loeb a year older when they killed Franks, partly under the influence of egos so swollen they thought they were smarter than anyone else. Convinced they were Nietzschean supermen, they began with petty crimes like arson, soon advanced to robbery and, eventually, to murder.
Dolginoff wrote book, music and lyrics, which gives the play a dramatic unity that is satisfying, and Brooke Edwards' direction is impressive as she uses John Blunk's lighting design to add power while Leopold, at a 1958 parole hearing, speaks about the crime and then finds Loeb, or his ghost, to illustrate what he is speaking about. James Bleecker is the handsome, suave Leopold, using, abusing and denying Blake Berry Davy, as the subservient Loeb, desperate for his lover's approval, or even his lover's scorn, which obviously feels so good. Both students at Western Illinois University, where Edwards teaches, the actors show talent. Age and experience will expand their ability.
The score does get a little repetitious, but it's extremely strong in numbers like "Roadster," Loeb's tribute to his auto; the duet, "Nothing Like a Fire;" their fierce "Thrill Me;" and Loeb's tender, "Afraid," when all hope is gone; and the wry finale, ":Life Plus 99 Years." Henry Palkes at the onstage piano does a fine job interpreting the score.
Loeb was murdered in Joliet Prison in 1936, a death which drew one of the great newspaper leads, "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition." The death might have been a sexual assault, but later investigation showed it might have been a botched robbery attempt. Leopold finally was paroled in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, married and died in 1971.
Dolginoff's play, written in 2003, has been produced around the world, and the St. Louis premiere is long overdue but extremely welcome. Max & Louie Productions, the city's newest company, is led by Stellie Siteman and De Kaplan, and deserves commendation for a willingness to attempt theater that is more serious and interesting than an evening with Ann Landers. They picked well.
Thrill Me, a Max & Louie production, continues at the Gaslight Theatre through Sunday