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“Thrill Me” San Diego Premiere opens at Diversionary Theatre

 Michael Parrott and Scott Nickley as Leopold and Loeb in Diversionary "Thrill Me"
Michael Parrott and Scott Nickley as Leopold and Loeb in Diversionary "Thrill Me"
Daren Scott

Thrill Me

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San Diego, CA---Society had to count its blessings, when in 1924 two young intelligent beyond their years recent college graduates verging on psychopathic behavior, decided to abduct and murder a young innocent boy, fourteen year old Bobby Franks, for the thrill of it but were quickly rounded up and incarcerated because one of them was sloppy; Leopold dropped his eyeglasses at the scene of the crime and because they were so unusual, were easily traced back to him.

The Leopold/Loeb scandal was considered ‘the crime of the century’, which started my subconscious humming the song “Crime of the Century” from the musical “Ragtime” by Terrance McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty, (music) in which vaudevillian personality (‘Girl in the Red Velvet Swing’) Elizabeth Nesbit’s millionaire husband Harry Kenndall Thaw murdered her lover, another millionaire and famous architect Stanford White, on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden.

That happened in 1906 and was dubbed ‘the crime of the century’ by the press. I suppose every century must have its amount of ‘crimes of…’ but when all is said and done, murder is murder and dead is dead, but the sensationalism of it lingers and everyone wants to get into the act.

Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest is currently staging the San Diego Musical Premiere of Stephen Dolginoff’s (book, music and lyrics) “Thrill Me” through May 25th. It zero’s in on ‘The Leopold/Loeb story with music if you will. I guess nothing surprises me after I saw “Yours Anne” the musical rendition of the Anne Frank Story.

Once again, Diversionary is venturing into the gory details of these two young men. The first time was back in 2002 when it mounted John Logan’s “Never The Sinner” in what I remember as a stunning production sans music, or the gay factor. It was more of the factual courtroom drama as Clarence Darrow had them plead guilty to avoid a trial by jury. They both received lifetime sentences, but an inmate stabbed Loeb to death in 1936. It’s interesting how times change. Any references to their homosexual relationship were spoken in whispers.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb both came from Jewish social elite, Chicago families. To say they were products of privilege would be an understatement. Both were intelligent beyond their years bordering on genius (if IQ has any relevance) and neither had a conscience; they killed for the thrill of it, just to prove their superiority. Richard was convinced he was a textbook Superman according to his obsession with Nietzsche.

It is in this setting that we come face to face with Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Michael Parrott) and Richard Loeb (Scott Nickley), as they might have been cold, psychopathic, calculating and looking for thrills when they planned, researched and carried out their brutal crime. They kidnapped the Frank boy by luring him into their car, bludgeoned him with a tapered chisel, poured hydrochloric acid on his face and other parts of his body, hid the body in a culvert at the Penn. RR tracks then left the scene.

The play opens with Parrott as Leopold on a set of wooden layered platforms and cubes at a Parole Board Hearing in Joliet Prison. According to him, he’s been called before the board five times in thirty-four years and they still want to know Why? In the first of 18 songs (the show runs eighty minutes with no intermission) in the number “Why?” Nathan simply admits that the reason he did it was to ‘go along with him…’ Tony Houck’s musical direction and behind the scenes piano lends much to this bare boned musical.

In Dolginoff’s version it was the gay factor that propelled their actions with Loeb being the instigator and promising sexual payoffs and Leopold, so blinded by his need to win approval of and from his ‘lover’ that he was willing to go along with the crime.

Whatever the reason, Dolginoff’s book plays out by honing in on the relationships between the two and the on again/off again ‘contract they made’ as told in flashback with many of the lyrics taken from the testimony, psychiatric accounts (even Freud was offered the job but declined) and reliving their activities like setting an abandoned warehouse on fire, “Nothing like a Fire”. (Connor Mulligan’ lighting design is on fire perfect.)

Nickley, a virile and contemptuous looking Loeb and Parrott, the soft and round Leopold look like the odd couple but prove credible as the lovers and plotters throughout. Parrott has the better voice but Nickley, hard as nails, nails Loeb to a tee especially after the opening dance scene, setting the stage bringing out his violent personality. Choreographed by Michael Mizerany it shows his frustration and anger giving us some insight into what will follow. It proved to be rather spellbinding.

Brett Young, making his directorial debut in this ‘thriller’ of a play, nailed it the first time out. Congratulations!

Rumor has it that Bobby Franks, the young boy who was kidnapped and killed in cold blood by Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb in 1924 haunted his grave until both men were dead. He then, finally, went to his rest. This might be fact or it might be just another ghost story. Ghost story or legend, most of the public is drawn to gore and for that reason, “Thrill Me”, Dolginoff’s ‘pocket musical’, another in a series of reenactments of the bizarre, offers another point of view.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 25th

Organization: Diversionary Theatre

Phone: 619-220-0097

Production Type: Musical Thriller

Where: 4545 Park Blvd. #101, San Diego, CA 92116

Ticket Prices: $25.00-$39.00

Web: diversionary.org