For the Thrill of It
Prepare yourself—this isn’t your mother’s musical theatre. This is Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, with music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff and presented in Threshold Repertory Theater’s intimate black box by What If? Productions. The story chronicles the relationship between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, more infamously known as the "Thrill Killers," who, as best friends, contrived to pull off the "perfect crime." In 1924, they kidnapped and murdered a young boy from their Chicago neighborhood, but (as is usually the case) they botched the job and were arrested shortly thereafter. Threshold Rep’s black box stage lends itself to the twisted and minimal feel of this show. You won’t find a full orchestra here, just a piano sitting center stage and a powerfully sung score that is responsible for most of the storytelling.
This musical is almost less about the actual crime and more about the two killers' relationship with each other. Director Kyle Barnette says, “The framework of this musical allows us to explore their often manipulative and sensual relationship…how they use each other to achieve their final means." This may be what makes theatrical pieces about crime so entertaining and interesting to watch. I could easily Google "Leopold and Loeb" and find out everything I could ever want to know about the crime, but not so much about the men as actual human beings. This score, being operatic (most of the story is sung) and conversational, allows the actors and director to delve beneath the case files and tell a truthful story about two men and their driving passions, mainly each other. Barnette says, “I want people to see how a musical can be an effective narrative and perhaps be tangible for those who are not normally musical theatre fans. The way each song drives the characters and follows the history of the story is just brilliant in its composition.” An example of Leopold’s mentality before he committed the crime? Fredrick Nietzche had a concept known as "Übermensch" or the "superman," an individual who transcended the laws and rules of the normal world because of their superior intellect or special abilities. Leopold believed that he was one of these supermen, and thusly believed that he was above the laws of society. Uh oh…
What If? is known for presenting contemporary, new, and unknown works, including musicals at both Threshold Rep and The American Theater downtown. There are other theatrical companies in town (Charleston Stage, Woolfe Street, etc.) who consistently produce big-budget musicals, and do them very well, so What If? looks for smaller-scale shows that fit a different niche. Thrill Me’s minimalism in terms of set, cast, and music makes it a perfect fit. The entire piano score is played by local musician Kevin J. Thorn. What If? Producing Artistic Director Kyle Barnette directs What If? Founding Producing Director Brian Porter as Richard Loeb and PURE Theatre Core Ensemble Member Brannen Daugherty as Nathan Leopold. With musical direction by local actor/musician Derek Pickens. Thrill Me runs February 19–28 at 7:30 p.m., with one late-night show at 10:00 p.m. on February 21. Tickets available at the box office at 84 1/2 Society Street or http://www.whatifproductions.org/season5/thrill-me-the-leopold-and-loeb-story.html.