Thrill Me at Diversionary Theatre
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Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Leopold and Loeb: the dark-eyed, slick-haired, “thrill killers” of 1924 could have posed for Arrow shirt ads. Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18, were intelligent lawyers-to-be. Leopold had a 210 IQ and claimed to speak 27 languages fluently; Loeb read Nietzche, identified with his “superman.”

According to legend, Loeb was the instigator. For reasons pondered ever since, Loeb said he needed an accomplice.

Loeb murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks, he said, to commit the perfect crime and prove their superiority — if only to each other. This suggests they had some kind of bond: mental, emotional, or, though not mentioned at the time, sexual.

Legend says Leopold’s judgment “was that of a child.” Thirty-three years later, Leopold confessed he “would have done anything [Loeb] asked.”

Before proceedings began, Clarence Darrow had both plead guilty to avoid a jury trial. Because the “boys” grew up on a post-World War age, Darrow argued, they suffered mental illness. They killed Franks “as they might a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way.”

Each got life plus 99 years.

Stephen Dolginoff’s musical, Thrill Me, begins in Joliet Prison in 1958. Leopold will go before his parole board for the fifth time (Loeb was murdered by a former cell-mate in 1936). As he pleads his case, flashbacks re-tell the story.

The script plays uneven. It wavers between facile explanations — master/slave control issues; all for love — and an eerie escalation from innocence to evil. The best scenes happen after the crime. As evidence builds, Leopold and Loeb’s above-the-law superiority gets shaken, and their “bond” slowly unravels.

The 80-minute piece concludes with a twist as ironic as it is unbelievable — given what leads up to it and the known history of the subjects. The actor making the flip-flop needs to prepare for it better early on and sell it much more convincingly.

Doglinoff’s score has won awards, but most of the 17 songs repeat a staccato phrase, over and over. A plus for Diversionary: Tony Houck’s backup piano drives the songs, and the show, forward.

Although the sound design could use a level-check, Erick Sundquist’s costumes — white shirts, black pants and vests — give the pair a distinctive look. And Conor Mulligan’s shadows, horizontal reds, noire effects rank among the best lighting designs I’ve seen at Diversionary.

As Loeb, Scott Nickley makes up in intensity what the script lacks in depth (his opening macabre “dance,” choreographed by Michael Mizeraney, sets a stunning tone). Michael Parrott gives Leopold a strong singing voice (especially renditions of “Way Too Far”) but tends to indicate emotionally.

Bret Young designed the set — red brick wall, low platform like a prison cell, cold, metallic feel throughout — and directed for the first time. Except for places that lapse into camp (they’re in the script), it’s a solid effort with a tricky piece.

But somewhere else. On opening night, it was hard to keep a sad fact from intruding: after 15 years of deep dedication, Young is leaving Diversionary. He has done every job, performed miles beyond the call of every duty, and has literally been the glue of the company.

Best wishes to this man in whatever he chooses, which should include directing!

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