Take two smart trust-fund boys, add a sprinkling of obsession and a dose of ego, and you have the first thrill-kill of the 20th century, the murder of a 14-year-old boy in Chicago in 1924 by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Not, you might think, the stuff of which musicals are made. But Thrill Me begs to differ, and the production at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, directed by Jeffry George and starring husband-and-husband team Adam Berry and Ben Berry, is a brilliant show with surprisingly catchy tunes and the kind of twist at the end that mystery authors like me struggle to emulate.
The music is arguably the most powerful part of a powerful production. Backed by an energetic John Thomas on piano, Berry and Berry are seriously on fire, their voices faultlessly matched with tight harmonies and pitch-perfect sound. “I could listen to them singing together forever,” said my theater companion, and she was right: the Berrys are brilliant actors and if possible even more brilliant singers.
The story is an odd one. Leopold and Loeb were admittedly above average: they graduated from college at age 17 and 18, and were obsessed with Nietzche’s concept of a superman. Convinced that their intelligence and social privilege exempted them from laws that bound other people, they planned the “perfect” murder that had more to do with hubris than brilliance, as (again, speaking as a mystery author) they erred fairly egregiously on several counts. After killing Franks, they sent a ransom demand to his family, but the body was discovered, the ransom-note typewriter was matched, an alibi was refuted, and a pair of glasses traced to Leopold dropped near the body. Both confessed, and were represented by Clarence Darrow, who argued eloquently (and successfully) against the imposition of the death penalty. In January 1936, a fellow inmate killed Loeb in a bloody razor fight in the prison’s shower. Leopold was released on parole in 1958 (poet Carl Sandburg testified on his behalf) and died in 1971.
Ben Berry’s Leopold is petulant, demanding, and eager to do anything to get what he wants, including dissing Loeb’s obsession (“You’ve been reading too much Nietzche”). Adam Berry’s Loeb is cold, inaccessible, and seems the most human when he’s at his most creepy, enjoying arson and luring young Franks to his car. As cracks develop in their relationship, the power balance between the two men shifts subtly and gradually until the final twist, which is as surprising as it’s clever.
And the tunes are perfect. “Everyone wants Richard,” complains Leopold, while Loeb counters with his close-to-sexual satisfaction in Nothing Like a Fire. There’s even humor when they begin to plot the identity of their victim: “If we killed my brother John,” muses Loeb, “he’d never touch my things.”
The minimalist stage set and its clever use adds to the harrowing nature of the play. There’s no intermission and no applause breaks, so the tension is allowed to build and build to the end, when Leopold—finally alone—is being considered for parole. He notes that there are “new killers like me every day” as the parole board admits,”we need the beds.” Which is—after the buildup of electrifying pressure—something of an anticlimax, but a neat end to a taut brilliant production.
And there’s good news: not only are there playmaker talkbacks on October 29 and November 5, but Friday October 30th is Ptown Night at WHAT! Get transportation on the Funk Bus, cocktails, and a ticket to Thrill Me for a special price. Seating is very limited, so call now: 508-349-9428
Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff
A musical thriller
Directed by Jeffry George
Runs October 24 – November 8