The erotic substrata made up of those who enjoy playing "master (or mistress) and slave" games has always been a part of our libidinous culture. To wit: exactly how many millions has the author of Fifty Shades of Grey made?
But sometimes, those games are played for keeps.
So it is in Thrill Me, The Leopold & Loeb Story, now being produced by convergence-continuum. Yes, the infamous 1920's child murder case—featuring a dominant and submissive pairing of rich, brilliant and accomplished gay men—has been set to music by creator Stephen Dolginoff.
While there are problems, ranging from a numbingly repetitious score to less than stellar voices, the two-person cast generates intensity in many small and interesting ways. And that results in a show that is weirdly compelling but not entirely satisfying.
This is a largely sung-through production handled by the two performers (Shall we call it a "duopera"? I think not.). In any case, Mike Majer as Nathan Leopold and Zac Hudak as Richard Loeb sing their way through the entire grisly story in 75 minutes.
Told in flashbacks from Leopold's perspective at his parole hearing in 1958, we see how obedient Nathan is ensnared in Richard's felonious foreplay. It seems Richard is only turned on after he and Nathan commit various crimes, starting with petty burglaries and escalating to arson.
As they watch a factory go up in flames, they hug and they hug and Richard trills, "There's nothing like a warm, romantic fire/To put me in the proper frame of mind." Many of Dolginoff's lyrics display this structure, using deceptively prosaic phrases that are loaded with double meanings.
But Loeb's obsessions turn psychopathic when he suggests murder as the ultimate expression of their Nietzschean "superman" status. Although both men are blessed with monumental IQs (Nathan's was over 200), they can't perceive the most obvious moral truths.
After flirting with the idea of killing Richard's younger brother, they park outside a school and lure 14-year-old Bobby Franks into their car in the sly and chilling "Roadster."
Of course, the geniuses leave an endless trail of evidence and they are soon arrested and convicted. But a surprise twist at the end, conveyed in "Life Plus 99 Years," provides a different explanation for their fate, adding a provocative twist to the usual master-slave relationship.
The music is reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera with some Broadway riffs here and there, and it is at time quite haunting. But the tempos hardly vary and it eventually begins to wear thin.
As Richard, Hudak brims with slick confidence and macho brio as he leads Nathan around by the nose. And he exudes sexual magnetism by the bucketful. But Dolginoff's melodies are often elusive, and Hudak's voice isn't always up to the task of tracking these musical journeys while staying on key.
Majer does better with his singing, providing some much-needed vocal reliability. But he has a sweet, open-faced appearance that doesn't come close to the brooding darkness of the young Nathan. And try as he might (and he does), Majer doesn't fully embody this complex man who had a stupendous brain lashed tragically to insistent sexual desires.
This is the first musical attempted by convergence-continuum, and director Clyde Simon keeps the tension ratcheted up.
But Simon's set design eschews any period furniture, utilizing simple painted platforms. This eliminates one way of immersing the audience in this time period, when murderers and gay men were equally reviled.
It makes one wonder what would have happened if society had accepted gay relationships decades ago, and not driven those people into the shadows. Would the names Leopold & Loeb have simply been an engraving on an elegant wedding invitation, and not the infamous brand of Chicago's thrill killers?