Timeless thrill

Thrill Me! offers yet another interpretation of a 1924 murder.

The 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by wealthy university students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb will, it appears, always fascinate writers and other artists.

Meyer Levin turned it into the novel Compulsion, later made into a film, and Alfred Hitchcock made Patrick Hamilton's play on the subject into the chilling movie Rope.

In 1985, writer Josh Logan wrote the Leopold and Loeb drama Never the Sinner (produced at American Stage a few years ago), and Tom Kalin's 1992 film Swoon, though not widely known, took up the theme once again, with particular emphasis on the sexual relationship of the two murderers.

Now there's a musical — Thrill Me!, currently showing at St. Petersburg's Suncoast Theatre — and no doubt there will be other plays and films in years to come. And why not? The story has everything: intelligent, affluent criminals who also happen to be lovers; their belief that they are Nietzschean "supermen," not subject to human law, and capable of committing an unsolvable crime; the crime itself; the police investigation that leads, improbably enough, from a pair of lost eyeglasses to their arrest; their defense by Clarence Darrow in a landmark trial, featuring a 12-hour closing speech; and finally their fates after being spared the death penalty: Loeb murdered in prison by an inmate who claimed that he sexually assaulted him, Leopold paroled after 33 years, finally dying in 1971.

Life seldom gets more melodramatic than this, and seldom teaches such starkly clear lessons:

Crime doesn't pay. Even brilliant criminals are no match for dogged detectives with God on their side, and one overreaching German philosopher notwithstanding, there is no Beyond Good and Evil in human affairs. You do the crime, you do the time, no matter how big your trust fund, no matter who you've read or how many languages you speak (Leopold spoke 15). No matter what part of "Thou Shalt Not Kill" you didn't understand.

Of course, if this tale is to have maximum dramatic effect, we need to meet not only the two perps, but certain other pivotal characters: the innocent victim (someone to pity), the lead police detective (someone to urge forward), and the fabled defense attorney (someone to intellectually and emotionally challenged us). And that's where Thrill Me!, for all its virtues, comes up short: It shows us only the murderers, and places just about every event that requires other personages offstage.

What we get, as a result, is a surprisingly limited experience — sans crime and sans trial — that informs but doesn't move us. We see Leopold slavishly following Loeb around from the first minute; we see them drawing up a contract promising mutual aid; we see Loeb submitting himself, rather reluctantly, to sex. We see Loeb's post-homicidal exultation turn to anger when the missing eyeglasses are traced to Leopold. What we witness, in short, is the prelude and aftermath of every key moment in the story — but not the moments themselves.

The play is even reticent on the subject of the men's sexuality, showing us only a couple of kisses and the brief preamble to one sex act. Finally, it's hard to understand just why author (and composer/lyricist) Stephen Dolginoff chose this story for his musical; there's no new interpretation here, of the men or of the crime, and little in the way of suspense or tense conflict.

True, there are a few fine psychological moments in the musical, particularly when the two men are bending under the pressure of the police investigation. But mostly Thrill Me! fails to solve the problems it faces as a two-hander. Never the Sinner, which includes not only Darrow and State Attorney Crowe, but also Loeb's occasional girlfriend and scandal-hungry reporters, is a much more satisfying experience.

Still, the production has some virtues, notably the acting of Jonathan Van Dyke as Loeb, the directing of Angela Bond, and Trevor Keller's abstract set design. Van Dyke plays his part with a persuasive self-confidence. His Loeb is all mind and no heart, a textbook psychopath who finds "ordinary" life tiresome and only really feels alive when he's torching a warehouse or committing a burglary. Van Dyke makes it clear that sex is insufficient for Loeb, that he complies with Leopold's requests in order to maintain his partner's fealty, not because he finds any particular pleasure in the act. It also helps that Van Dyke possesses a likable singing voice: He makes his way through Dolginoff's songs with an impressive assuredness.

Derek Baxter as Leopold seems simplistic in comparison. Baxter's Leopold is a nebbish, a whiny shnook with nothing going on between his ears but his infatuation with his thrill-seeking friend. It's hard to see why Loeb, with his deeply felt snobbery, would find this Leopold a tolerable partner, just as it's hard to believe that Baxter's Leopold is the brilliant polymath-in-training that we learn of in the history books. Further, Baxter is not always convincing as a singer — on several occasions he has trouble in the upper registers.

Nevertheless, director Bond renders this unbalanced relationship almost thinkable, and helps us imagine that Keller's set, made up of several platforms of different size, is now a holding cell, now a schoolyard, now the grounds outside a burning building. One element that could use improvement, though, is the sound of the (unseen) parole board interrogating Leopold. At the moment, it's the phoniest thing in the whole production.

And then there are the songs. There are 15 or so in the course of the musical, and melodically they're almost instantly forgettable. Still, their lyrics are as essential to the story as the spoken dialogue, and on occasion give us insights into the characters.

I suppose I should be astonished that a single artist — Dolginoff — wrote the book, music and lyrics (and also played the role of Leopold in the Off-Broadway production). But the limitations of Thrill Me! are at least as notable as its strengths. I would guess that the author's best days are still ahead of him. Maybe in his next play he'll choose a subject about which he really has something interesting — and original — to say. Maybe in his next play we'll know just what it was that drew him to his subject.

That's not at all clear in the case of Thrill Me!

Which means that even the lurid Leopold and Loeb story comes across — in this instance — as bland.

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