Obsession leads to murder at In Tandem Theatre
Less is often more in theater and life. Lean can be good in more than cuisine.
Stephen Dolginoff demonstrated that with his 2005 mini-musical "Thrill Me," an unusual piece being given an engrossing production by In Tandem Theatre. The show is running in the company's Tenth Street Theatre.
"Thrill Me" is among a number of stage and screen works about the Leopold and Loeb "crime of the century" murder case in 1924 Chicago. Two extraordinarily intelligent teenagers from upper class families, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy for the thrill of it. Loeb's father was a Sears vice president.
The duo had been on a spree of escalating crimes, including arson, that culminated with the carefully planned murder. Intellectual arrogance, driven by a devotion to Nietzsche's superman theory, was the root of their criminality. The young men thought they were too smart to get caught.
Outstanding detective work quickly solved the homicide and provided a crucial detail that Dolginoff uses as an intriguing final twist in "Thrill Me." His conclusion is speculative but theatrically satisfying.
Theories and conjecture have surrounded the Leopold and Loeb case as people struggled to understand how a couple of brilliant and wealthy teenagers could choose to amuse themselves with such a cold-blooded disregard for life and morality. Attention is often paid to a shadowy sexual relationship between the two young men.
"Thrill Me" paints a severe picture of sexual obsession with only two characters, Leopold and Loeb, in a single 80-minute act. Dolginoff, who played Leopold in early productions of the show, wrote the music, book and lyrics.
The piece is framed as a flashback. Leopold is pleading his case before a parole board in 1958, and he explains his crime, mostly through song.
He depicts Loeb as the bi-sexual Svengali who manipulated him into doing evil. Parole board members are only heard via recorded voices.
"Thrill Me's" strength is in its economy of words, characters, dramatics and staging. The sharp focus fosters obsession.
In Tandem's smooth production, directed by Chris Flieller, centers on Adam Estes' well-sung Leopold, who conveys the angst and desperation of a teenage crush. Leopold visually remains middle-aged and Estes imbues him with a mature dignity that never wavers, but we feel a youthful passion churning in his gut.
As Richard Loeb, Joe Fransee cuts a compelling figure of cocky confidence and more. He revels in the adoring attention being paid to him, and he uses it to feed his runaway ego.
David Bonofiglio provides onstage piano accompaniment.
The In Tandem production team of Rick Rasmussen (set), Pamela Rehberg (costumes), Holly Blomquist (lights) and Jonathan Leubner (sound) plays a key role in creating the concentrated energy necessary for "Thrill Me" to succeed.
Dolginoff's lyrics often try too hard to rhyme, but his melodic score, frequently featuring the two men harmonizing, serves the story well. The ominous "Roadster," a song of persuasion aimed at their victim, is particularly haunting.
"Thrill Me" continues through May 15.
The story of THRILL ME works better than the songs, but it's still an interesting (and at times, chilling) play. Unfortunately, I won't be attending this production -- I've enjoyed In Tandem's shows, but I can't imagine any production being better than Theatrical Tendencies' version earlier this season.
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