EmptyHudson Backstage Theatre, Los Angeles
Through March 2
After debuting off-Broadway in 2005 and subsequently enjoying more than 20 productions worldwide, including a currently long-running production in Seoul, a macabre musical titled "Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story" has shown up as the inaugural presentation of Havoc Theatre Company. It is a tantalizingly good choice that resonates with Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and bodes well for the company's future.
It's no wonder that the notorious Leopold and Loeb "thrill killers" scandal in 1924 has been the basis for successful plays and films. Under the cover of sleekly superficial, high-sounding intellectual issues, it allows creative types to explore the lurid details of a brutal crime committed by two obnoxious rich kids.
For many, this story of senseless violence and tragic hubris among the offspring of Chicago's business elite would seem to be a poor candidate for a musical. But it is no obstacle to Stephen Dolginoff, who has created a dark little entertainment told in flashbacks that combines the extravagant emotions and ensemble couplings of verismo opera (complete with feverish kisses and embraces) with musical sounds and styles drawn from Broadway and the bittersweet ballads of Franz Schubert and Kurt Weill.
It's almost a shame that Dolginoff only has time to skate the surface of the case, leaving out entirely Leopold and Loeb's religious and cultural backgrounds and abbreviating some of the facts. In efficiently clearing the historical decks, however, Dolginoff is able to focus on the enabling relationship between the two self-proclaimed supermen and glimpse something of what made them tick.
Directed on a bare stage with a light touch by Nick DeGruccio, the actors are left on their own to face the challenge of bringing the killers to life.
As Nathan Leopold, Stewart W. Calhoun resists the temptation to start off with a big bang and goes on to create a seamless performance that is delivered in a voice of amazing dynamic range and tonal variety, culminating in a well-disguised, perhaps imaginary, twist of fate. Although the repressed persona Calhoun adopts owes disappointingly little to his alluring picture on the play's advertising poster, his portrayal of a deeply complex, profoundly schizophrenic closet killer is memorable, indeed.
Unfortunately, though Alex Schemmer as Richard Loeb looks the part -- elegantly luscious when he saunters onto the stage and at many points afterward, presenting himself as if he were a blatantly sexual instrument -- he simply does not have the charismatic firepower to match Calhoun. As a result, the chemistry never fully develops that, if it crackled between them rather than merely smoldered, would envelop the audience.
Each croons as much as sings, with results that are always pleasant and occasionally even moving during such songs as "Everybody Wants Richard (but not the way that I do)" and "Roadster," with the slight edge going to Calhoun, who sports to good advantage a falsetto that mirrors his rising sexual temperature.
Although each actor is miked, the amplification sometimes varies, and musical director Michael Paternostro -- though he plays with the appropriate quasimelodramatic nuances of a silent movie pianist -- too often drowns out key words and lines.
The set is a model of small theater resourcefulness, the lighting behaves itself, and the few costumes work well enough, though undue time is occupied by the actors taking off and putting on their jackets, unbuttoning their vests and unfastening their suspenders.
THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD & LOEB STORY
Presented by Havoc Theatre Company
Book-music-lyrics: Stephen Dolginoff
Director: Nick DeGruccio
Producer: Chad Borden
Musical director: Michael Paternostro
Set designer: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting designer: Steven Young
Costume designer: Rachel Myers
Sound designer: Drew Dalzell
Nathan Leopold: Stewart W. Calhoun
Richard Loeb: Alex Schemmer