Onstage: Review: Thrill Me

Thrill killing is translated into a compelling musical at Know

Deogracias Lerma

Mikhail Roberts (left) and Steve Copps star in Know Theatre's riveting production of Thrill Me.

Getting inside the head of someone who behaves beyond the norms of society is one way theater can be revelatory. Musical theater, which can delve into the inner emotions of characters, is especially able to help an audience understand someone's psyche and motivation.

Stephen Dolginoff's two-man musical Thrill Me, in its regional premiere at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, explores the 1924 exploits and crimes of two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a child for the thrill of it. It's a weirdly twisted story — and a compelling, chilling tale of misdirected mental states.

Leopold and Loeb, both from affluent Jewish families in Chicago, were swayed by a theory advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche that some people live on a "higher plane" above mundane laws and human mores. The pair, believing they were such "supermen," tested the theory, at first with petty crimes, arson and theft. Aspiring attorneys, they drafted a "contract" of mutual support and dependence.

Eventually they conceived a more stringent test and concomitant thrill: murder. Their careful plan, however, unraveled just a few days after they murdered Bobby Franks, and they quickly confessed to police. During a highly publicized trial (the murder was called the "crime of the century" in its day), the pair's homosexuality was revealed as the foundation for the "thrills" their lawless acts fueled.

This lurid dimension of their story was a key component of daily newspaper coverage.

Thrill Me boils down Leopold and Loeb's true story to its heart-thumping essence, and director Jason Bruffy creates a core of tension that sustains the 75-minute performance. The two men are the only characters: Steve Copps plays the seemingly weak-willed Leopold and narrates; Mikhail Roberts is the self-centered and manipulative Loeb.

Told retrospectively from 1958, when Leopold underwent a parole hearing that led to his release, the pair's story unfolds in a series of intense, dimly lit flashbacks. Leopold claims he was under Loeb's sway, unwillingly drawn into their criminal acts by his obsession with their relationship.

The story is complicated in its final moments, when we're given reason to doubt who has manipulated whom, making Thrill Me all the more fascinating.

Dolginoff's powerful melodies and revelatory lyrics flesh out the characters. (Copps and Roberts are accompanied by onstage music director Michael Flohr, playing an upright piano that blends perfectly with Sean Savoie's rough-hewn plank set.) During an early act of arson ("Nothing Like a Fire"), we see how the flames drive their ardor; when their victim is lured from a playground with an offer of a ride in Loeb's car ("Roadster"), we witness his attractive charms; and in "Life Plus 99 Years" we see that Leopold, a seeming victim until this moment, has a mind capable of cunning that's the equal of Loeb's.

Copps, a newcomer to the Cincinnati theater scene, is a fine singer and actor. His physical presence sometimes dominates the smaller but intense Roberts (whose singing is functional but not Copps' equal), but their acting skills bring their relationship into an odd balance. Roberts' Loeb is a more opaque character; Copps' role, as written by Dolginoff (who also scripted the show), reveals more of himself as the story's narrator.

Thrill Me represents one of Savoie's last design contributions to the Cincinnati theater scene. After several years as a lighting designer at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, he's moving to St. Louis for an academic job there. His stark warehouse set design and dramatic lighting for this show are exemplary of the award-winning work he has contributed to several local theaters.

Thrill Me, a musical that premiered at New York's Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2003, is reminiscent of the fine, engaging and visually arresting work Know did with another production last fall, the CEA-nominated See What I Wanna See. For a satisfying — if rather sick — evening of summer theater "thrills," Know Theatre has the ticket. Grade: B+

THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD AND LOEB STORY, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 2.

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