A whole subgenre of theater consisting of musicals about murderers has built up during the past several decades. These shows have ranged from the splashy and cynical ("Chicago") to the provocative and disturbing (Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins").
Richmond Triangle Players offers one of the latest entries to this growing list, the off-Broadway hit "Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story." While it isn't as powerful as some others of its ilk, this intimate drama offers a consistently engaging score, one thoroughly chilling scene and a delicious late-stage surprise.
The swiftly moving 90-minute show also packs in more than a dozen songs and several moments of dark humor to make for a satisfying night of theater, if not a truly thrilling one.
In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb committed the first murder to be dubbed the "Crime of the Century," killing a young boy in cold blood. They were called the "thrill killers" because they were two wealthy, well-educated University of Chicago students who broke the law simply for the visceral charge it gave them, starting with arson and theft before graduating to murder.
"Thrill Me" casts Loeb (Chris Hester) as the instigator of their escalating rampage, suggesting that Leopold (Elliott Lau) went along with Richard because of sexual obsession. Fascinated with Nietzsche's concept of the "šbermensch" (superman), they are convinced they can commit the perfect crime and not get caught. Their plans, of course, go terribly awry.
The story is told through Leopold's eyes, and Lau delivers a stirring performance as a devoted innocent, willing to do whatever is necessary to please his charismatic lover. Hester's Loeb is more erratic: Holding himself aloof from Leopold, he also remains largely remote from the audience as well. Only during the sublimely creepy song "Roadster," in which Loeb lures his unsuspecting victim into his car, does Hester's performance catch fire. His simmering thirst for murder is palpable and supremely sinister.
In general, the book by Stephen Dolginoff (who also wrote the music and lyrics) is long on facts but a little stingy on insight. The show hinges on the "why" of this crime, and I came away still wondering why Loeb was such a sociopath and Leopold such a sycophant. Dolginoff's lyrics are also a bit dry, eschewing metaphors and imagery for exhortations such as "I was overcome!"
But many of the tunes are exceptional, anchored with minor chords and an ominous repeating drone. These songs, together with the story's inherent drama, propel "Thrill Me" forward so seductively that you are guaranteed to get swept along. S
"Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story" is appearing at Fieldens Cabaret Theatre, Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Through March 3. Tickets, $18-$20, are available by calling 346-8113 or by visiting www.rtriangle.org.