Over the next two months, Los Angeles theatergoers will have an
unprecedented opportunity to see two very different treatments of one of the
most talked and written about crimes of the past century, with the two shows
playing virtually across the street from each other. One of them is a world
premiere drama written and directed by the Blank’s award winning Daniel
Henning. The other is the L.A. premiere of a Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle
nominated musical. The drama is Dickie And Babe: The True Story Of Leopold
And Loeb, and the musical is Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.    I’ll be
reviewing the former in mid-February.  The latter opened on Saturday at the
Hudson, and under Nick DeGruccio’s impeccable direction, it is likely to be one of
the most talked about, and praised, musicals of 2008.

The crime in question, for the uninitiated, took place in 1924, when two wealthy
Chicago teenagers lured a younger teenage boy to their car, murdered him,
and then had the audacity to demand ransom from the boy’s parents. When
the body was discovered and a distinctive pair of eyeglasses belonging to one of
the boys found next to it, the evidence led to the killers’ arrest and eventual life

What would possess these two affluent, and brilliant, young men to commit such
a horrendous crime?  In the case of Richard Loeb, 18, it was his belief that he
was, in the words of Nietzsche, a “superman,” and the thrill he got from a series of
crimes–burglary, arson, and eventually murder.  In the case of Nathan Leopold,
the motivation was a different kind of passion.  He and Richard were secret
lovers, and it was only by agreeing to be Richard’s accomplice that he could
persuade his lover not to end their affair.

Thrill Me begins in 1958, with Nathan (Stewart W. Calhoun) standing in front of
the parole board for the umpteenth time, and being told, “We have the facts.
What is the truth?”  As Nathan begins his revealing narrative, we travel back in
time thirty-four years, and Calhoun reappears, dressed in the suit and tie worn by
students of the era, while above and behind him, bathed in white light, stands
Richard (Alex Schemmer), blond, handsome in black suit and bow-tie, smoking a
cigarette with elegant sophistication.

Richard, who has returned to Chicago from college, is at first unwilling to resume
the sexual relationship he and Nathan had had previously, but when Nathan,
whom Richard calls “Babe,” agrees once again to help him with a series of “thrill”
crimes, Richard relents and the two are lovers, and partners in crime, anew.

At first glance it might seem that it is Richard who holds all the power in this
relationship.  In the song “Everybody Wants Richard,” Nathan reacts with jealousy
to “the others” Richard has had sex with, and with anger when Richard tells him
cruelly, “I only miss the worship.”  But it soon becomes clear that Nathan is no
shrinking violet, and their emotional/sexual cat and mouse game is fascinating
to observe. After a sexual interlude provoked by a fire the two young men have
set, Nathan asks to spend the night with Richard.  When the latter refuses,
“Babe” will not take no for an answer. “Then I’ll just get John (Richard’s brother)
to invite me,” he responds.  “All right,” snaps back Richard, “you can watch me
sleep.”  Later, Richard confesses that “I screw up without you,” and Nathan is
touched, declaring “You never (before) said you needed me.” Such is the nature,
and the complexity, of their relationship, revealed in Dolginoff’s dialog and lyrics.

There is also surprising humor in Dolginoff’s words, as when Richard sings the
romantic ballad “Nothing Like A Fire” just as if he were sitting in front of a cozy fire
and not a burning building he has set ablaze.  Later, as Richard dictates the
“contract” that he and Nathan will sign in blood, a document that will unite
them in crime and passion, he quips, “This is great practice for your contract law

Nick DeGruccio’s staging is a textbook example of directorial brilliance, as he
adds countless touches that most likely were not in the original script. As the
two boys sing “Thrill Me,” Nathan presses his body intensely and seductively
against a Richard who resists him, which only makes Nathan’s passion burn
stronger.  “The Plan,” in which Richard contemplates killing his brother, starts out
like a joke with Richard pretending to smother Nathan with a pillow, ends up
very hot indeed with the two young men in bed. Most powerful of all is
“Roadster,” the song which Richard sings in order to persuade his young victim
into his car.  A pair of headlights illuminates Richard from behind, with Nathan
lurking in the upstage darkness.

The murder takes place offstage, as a series of pounding piano chords sound
from stage left. The boys enter disheveled, blood on their hands and on their
white shirts, elated by what they have just done, leading into the best known of
the show’s songs, “Superior,” in which Richard and Nathan describe how
exhilarating it feels to have become the supermen that Nietzsche described.

A later series of phone calls between the boys, as they learn in increments how
the police investigation keeps leading closer and closer in their direction, gains
power as DeGruccio keeps a distance between them regardless of where each
is on the stage.

No matter how brilliant a director may be, he/she can only succeed with a cast
of actors capable of rising to the same level, and in this, DeGruccio’s and
producer Chad Borden’s exhaustive talent search has succeeded admirably.
Seventy or so actors auditioned for the two leads, and with the breadth and
depth of talent in Los Angeles, the decision of which two to cast must have
been a tough one.  But DeGruccio and Borden have come up with two winners.

Stewart W. Calhoun is pure perfection as Nathan. Following his raved about
performance in “dark stories or plays for boys,” Calhoun proves himself
an actor/singer of depth and power.  His choirboy face masks the ability to exert
at least some control over the more overtly dominant Richard.  In Calhoun’s
performance, there is always the suggestion that perhaps Nathan is not so
submissive as he might seem, essential to the believability of the musical’s
climactic scenes. Calhoun is also able to show us the tired soul of 1954 Nathan,
and transitions effortlessly from the older Nathan to his teenage self.

Just as Calhoun is able to suggest a deeper Nathan than we might see on the
surface, so is his excellent costar and partner in crime, Alex Schemmer, with his
blond, rosy-cheeked good looks, able to be the kind of golden boy that would
enrapture and enslave Nathan and at the same time show us how thrill-seeking,
arrogant, and cruel Richard can be.

Chemistry between the two is electric, the power of their performances
enhanced by the fact that both actors, though in their early twenties, are
absolutely believable as 18/19 year olds.  (The original production featured
Dolginoff and Doug Kreeger who, I would guess, could not easily create that
illusion.) Calhoun and Schemmer sing as well as they act, and though there
appeared to be a bit of opening night nerves and in a few instance one or the
other seemed to get slightly off beat, these are performances which can only
become more assured as the run progresses.

Stephen Dolginoff’s music is as powerful and seductive as the tale he is telling.  A
device he uses to great effect is recurring melodies.  In “A Written Contract,”
Dolginoff previews the melody which he will use for “Superior.”  Later, the melody
of “Roadster” returns in “Keep Your Deal With Me,” which DeGruccio stages with
the two boys side by side on straight back chairs, handcuffed arms behind them,
as they are being taken away by the police.

Like the original production, the L.A. premiere utilizes a single piano to
accompany the songs and provide background music.  At the keyboard here is
Broadway’s Michael Paternostro, and from the first ominous notes to the
haunting final chords, he is every bit up to the task of filling the Hudson with the
power of Dolginoff’s music.

Tom Buderwitz’s set design makes full use of the Hudson’s wide stage, with
Richard’s and Nathan’s bed on opposite sides, emphasizing the distance
Nathan feels when separated from Richard, and steps leading from stage level
to a higher platform, which DeGruccio uses to great effect in scenes where one
of the boys looks down upon the other. Steven Young’s lighting is his usual
superb work, one particularly good example being the fire which the two young
men have set, reflected on their transfixed faces, with sound designer Drew
Dalzell’s crackling fire sounds completing the effect. Rachel Myers’ costumes are
period perfect.

A musical about two gay teen killers might seem a bit off-putting to some, but
for those willing to experience something unusual, exciting, and emotionally
powerful, Thrill Me most definitely engrosses, captivates, and ultimately, indeed,

Note: Chris Carlisle, so excellent in the recent Twist, is understudying both Richard
and Nathan.  The roles are in very capable hands.

Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 26, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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