Thrill Me

Ken AshfordLocal Interest, TheatreLeave a Comment

Good local theatre this weekend and next:

Published: February 8, 2009

Putting a murder to music may not be new, but it does curl the brain somehow. Sweeney Todd did it, and Oklahoma! to a lesser degree. Kurt Weill is famous on the subject.

Now, "The Murder of the Century" is the focus of the two-man musical from Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance, Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.

For good ole, cold-blooded, calculated murder — the brainchild of two very intelligent young men — you can't ask for more than this particular, real-life crime, which happened in Chicago in 1924. It involved the murder of a young boy by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who were longtime friends, privileged Jewish university students and, possibly, lovers.

The murder set the country on its ear and immortalized the eloquent, 12-hour indictment of the death penalty by the duo's defense attorney, Clarence Darrow.

Jamie Lawson, the artistic director of Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance, is moving the company beyond its reliable roster of edgy humor. Lawson said he's still not sure why he picked Thrill Me, but he knows that he likes it and serves as the show's director and one of its co-stars.

He hasn't acted for nine years. His last role as one of several cowboys in Crazy For You is hardly preparation for playing a cold-blooded murderer who sings.

In this show, he plays Leopold, the younger of the pair who didn't necessarily concoct the murder but needed so much to be loved that he went along with his friend, Loeb, who enjoyed Nietzchean "superman" fantasies. Together, they came up with "the perfect crime," and newspapers relished headlines about "thrill killers."

Needing love from a madman may not be new subject matter, but in this show it's all set to music. First performed at the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York in 2003, the musical by Stephen Dolginoff (book, musics and lyrics) went to a larger Off-Broadway venue in 2005 by the York Theatre Company.

Songs are simply titled: "Thrill Me," "Way Too Far" and "Keep Your Deal with Me."

Lawson says that directing a two-man musical is easy enough. Bryan Daniel plays Loeb, and Lawson describes directing as something like, "OK, Bryan, you sing that line. OK. Then you come to me."

The subject matter, however, keeps Lawson thinking.

"The murder was so shocking," he said. "Why would two wealthy, everything-going-for-them kids want to do something like this? What was the motivation?

"Anything you do today is captured on the Internet or by your neighbor.

"We're just fascinated with this stuff," he said. "It's an episode on CSI, for heaven's sake. It's a history lesson to music. It's CNN, 2009."

Leopold and Loeb's murder of a 14-year-old boy who lived in their same wealthy neighborhood entailed killing him, then pouring hydrochloric acid on the body. Afterward, they had dinner.

One of the intrigues of the material, Lawson said, is comparing what happened in 1924 to the bombardment of violent and titillating imagery and behaviors we live with every day today.

"I can't figure out if there was the same amount of this kind of behavior back then and we just didn't have YouTube to tell us about it. Or do we have more of it because we're bombarded with this flow of stimulus? From the moment I get up, there's this constant stream of information — the computer, the TV, even the billboards are everywhere."

The show is told from the point of view of Lawson's character, Leopold. It's 1958, he's up for parole for the fifth time, and flashbacks take the audience to the planning of the murder — and the twisted relationship between the two men.

What's revealed in the show is that they had signed a contract. "The contract was to fulfill one another's needs whatever they are," Lawson said.

Loeb was killed in prison, and Leopold was paroled after 33 years whereupon he moved to Puerto Rico.

Lawson is still thinking about his choice.

"I really don't know what compelled me to this show — to picking it — and to being in it. I don't usually play characters so deviant. I'm used to fluff, playing fluffy characters."

■ The Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance presents Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story at 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Feb. 19-21, and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 22. Tickets are $16 for adults and $14 for seniors and students. 1047 Northwest Blvd., Winston-Salem, N. C. Call 336-723-7777.

[Photo by Jeffrey Driver]