Everything’s coming up musicals nowadays … and no subject is taboo. Almost feels like the more outrageous the premise, the more likely it is to become a huge hit. Take joyfully murderous “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” or Mel Brooks’ Nazi-themed comedy, “The Producers,” featuring “Springtime for Hitler in Germany” as examples. A few weeks ago, even the universally beloved Star Trek brand has seen fit to choreograph an entire episode as a musical. (Check out S2 E9 “Subspace Rhapsody” of the “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” series on Paramount+. I consider it both thematically and choreographically out of this world!) In this episode, original musical numbers are weaponized to save the known universe – but not before presenting one of the best and briefest explanations for the art form, i.e., a song reveals the singer’s deepest, true emotions.
Which brings me to one of the most edgy, disturbing, and gasping-at-the-edge-of-your-seat musicals yet. One that grips you by the throat for 90 minutes … and never lets go. Island City Stage has indubitably picked a winner to close out their eleventh season. THRILL ME: The Leopold & Loeb Story, with book, music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff, has been earning international acclaim for two decades now but this true crime story – based on 1924’s legendary “crime of the century” – still holds power to shock and surprise.
Legends tend to grow with age. For this production, Island City Stage’s artistic director Andy Rogow tapped into our area’s own theatrical roots. He commissioned former local favorite turned successful NYC theater director and producer Christopher Michaels to direct the play. Michaels had starred as Nathan Leopold in Thrill Me’s South Florida regional premiere 12 years ago, a play Rogow himself directed for the now-shuttered Rising Action Theatre company. The two-man show places an incredible burden in the form of nonstop acting and singing upon its two leads. Who better to direct these characters than a multi-talented drama alumnus who’d lived through the experience himself?
The play’s tempo is often fast and furious, at times violently so, and there wasn’t a single misstep. For this we can thank the expertise of director Michaels and the specialized training of intimacy director Nicole Perry. And of course the two incredible young actors who nightly put in the Herculean effort of sustaining the story’s momentum while making us believe, right from the start, in the truth of their ambitions, delusions, but mostly, the all-encompassing destructive power of their obsessive relationship.
Local actor Kevin Veloz stars as Nathan Leopold and New York-based Dylan Goike as Richard Loeb – two brilliant and highly privileged best-friends from the South Side of Chicago who graduated high school together at age 15-and-a-half, went to the same college till Richard took off to Michigan in the middle of senior year, then attended the University of Chicago while Nathan was accepted at Harvard. Nathan, who is definitely gay, is obsessed with connecting with his friend sexually, constantly demanding “Thrill Me” in words and song. We get the feeling early on that Richard is, at the very least, a complete narcissist. But more likely (as we get to know him) could easily be labeled a sociopath, for whom sex is simply a tool for getting what he wants.
Be careful what you wish for. Kevin Veloz as Nathan actually looks forward to sharing a
cell with Dylan Goike as Richard for “Life Plus 99 years” in Stephen Dolginoff’s
searingly dark musical based on a notorious true crime caper of the past century.
THRILL ME: The Leopold & Loeb Story ignites Island City Stage through
Richard appears only turned on by sadistic power dynamics and achieves his “thrills” though lawless acts that begin with arson, proceed to breaking-and-entering to steal items he doesn’t care about or need and, always, lording it over Nathan and trifling with his feelings. Nevertheless, when Nathan – who takes no innate pleasure in such random acts of violence but just wants to please Richard – appears ready to abandon him, Richard confesses his need for his partner in crime, saying: “I screw up without you.” And so these two 19-year-old law students type up a contract pledging their partnership for eternity. The deal is Nathan does whatever Richard wants and Richard repays him with “thrill me” sex.
If Nathan is obsessed with Richard, Richard is obsessed with the writings of renowned nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the Ubermensch or Superman. Nietzsche posits that those who possess superior intellect are above (and need not follow) the common rules of society and religion. Richard goads Nathan into doing his illegal bidding by declaring that both of them are “Superior” in song. Veloz reflects on playing his character, Nathan, in the play’s program as an exploration of the animal within the human: How far will two people go to feel special? How far would most people go to feel something? To love, to feel, to betray, to breathe.
We watch in horror as these two young men’s thrill addiction quickly leads to larger and more dangerous anti-social activities until, for Richard, nothing but the ultimate act will do. “We are above society,” Richard says. “Murder is the only crime worthy of our talents.” He first coolly calculates killing his brother John, but when Nathan points out that, as an inheritor, he would likely be the first suspect, decides on an anonymous rich kid and a “Ransom Note” instead. As far as their preparation to commit this ultimate crime, Nathan will later reflect: “I had never seen Richard so happy before. While I was shaking the whole way.”
I won’t get into what actually happens – and there are some surprising twists at the end – but will only add that if you’re familiar with this popular news story, while the play takes some dramatic license, it’s all rather accurately portrayed. And everyone quickly realizes things won’t go as planned right from the start. The play’s opening scene takes place 34 years later, with Nathan sitting before the Joliet Prison Parole board in 1958.
This comes directly after the musical prelude, culminating in loud ominous chords played by outstanding musical director Eric Alsford. Alsford sits hidden toward the back of the stage, but his non-stop live piano accompaniment remains at the perfect volume and is a rare treat. So perfect, in fact, that many in the audience were amazed to learn they were actually enjoying a live music performance. Alsford’s vital contribution can be considered the “third actor” in this two-hander.
THRILL ME’s musical director Eric Alsford performs book-and-lyrics writer Stephen
Dolginoff’s original music live behind a curtain onstage, providing beautiful
accompaniment to his musical numbers and continually enhancing the charged