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Unnerving musical about the crime of the century at convergence-continuum

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Musicals have come from various sources.  There has been the tale of an illiterate flower girl who was transformed into a proper woman (MY FAIR LADY), a Biblical Jewish youth who became a leader in Egypt (JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT), a prince who kept searching for his corner of the sky until he realized that it was right where he was (PIPPIN), and a big nosed sassy New York girl who transformed herself into a famous vaudeville star (FUNNY GIRL).

Stephen Dolginoff thought that the story of two wealthy genius teenagers, who in 1924 abducted and killed a young boy, would make for a musical evening of theatre.  Yes, he has transformed Chicago wunderkinds, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and their kidnapping and carrying out a gruesome murder, into a musical.

Don’t get the idea that Dolginoff envisioned a joyful, song-filled show with fabulous dance numbers or pretty love duets. He didn’t.  In THRILL ME:  THE LEOPOLD LOEB STORY, a version of which is on stage at convergence-continuum, what he produced was a script, to be played by two actors, with haunting music, that tells the tale, or his version of the morbid story.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb came from affluent backgrounds.  They were both brilliant.  Loeb, who was obsessed with crime, and was the youngest person ever to graduate from The University of Michigan, was purported to have an IQ of over 200 (average is 100).  A student of Nietzsche, he perceived the duo to be Übermenschen (supermen) and believed that legal obligations didn’t apply to those like he and Nate, because of their exceptional intelligence.

They boys were lovers, supposedly with the charismatic Loeb holding the power to withhold affection and manipulate the shy, nerdy Leopold.  Richard made a deal with Nathan that in return for his help in conducting some crimes, he will grant Nate the sexual favors he desires.  Eventually, the petty crimes turn into a murder plot.

The duo spent a long time planning the crime, though the musical almost makes it look like it was a spur of the moment event.  According to Leopold’s book, LIFE PLUS 99 YEARS, the original target of the attack was unavailable when he was taken to a dental appointment by his family’s chauffer, so they substituted Bobby Franks at the last minute.  Franks, Loeb’s second cousin, knew the pair, so getting him into the murder car was probably easy.

Stories vary as to who actually killed the youth, but, he was definitely murdered.  Also up for question, was the exact motivation.  Causation theories include their desire to pull off the perfect crime, that even though they were rich there was still a need for money, the thrill of the chase, as a sexual stimulant, and that they were privileged kids with nothing else to do.

The perfect crime was foiled when Leopold dropped his glasses near the place where Frank’s body was hidden.  The hinges on the glasses were unique and were only were only used on three pair of frames.  The police, through a series of maneuvers, tracked the glasses to Nathan and then got confessions.

A judicial proceeding, rather than a jury trial, found the famous Clarence Darrow as counsel for the defense.  The lawyer’s summation centered on the evils of capital punishment as a means of retribution, rather than rehabilitation.  Leopold and Loeb were found guilty, and each sentenced to ninety-nine years, plus life.

Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate in 1936.  Leopold, who had an exemplary record in prison, including developing a new penitentiary education system, volunteered to participate in a malaria drug experiment, was released  from jail in 1938.  He went on to live a productive life in Puerto Rico, where he wrote CHECKLIST OF BIRDS OF PUERTO RICO AND THE VIRGIN ISLANDS, a definitive ornithology book.

Dolginoff’s script adds and omits information about the tale, and should be taken as a story based on the boys and their crime, not as a documentary.  It compresses time, spends a great deal of time on the homosexual aspects of the duos lives, omits the police interrogation that settled the case, mentions Loeb’s getting killed but avoids Leopold’s life after being released, and does not give the actors the words needed to illustrate their super intelligence.  In spite of these flaws, the story development and the production are emotionally charged.

There are no memorable songs, though some of the titles illustrate the serious undertones including, “A Written Contract,” “Thrill Me,” “Superior,” and “Ransom Note.”

The lyrics tend to be overly dependent upon a labored rhyme scheme and the writer seems to be more obsessed with the sexual aspects of the story than the murder itself.  There is also a contemporary sound to the spoken words and song lyrics, which remove the material from its era.

Con-con’s production, under the focused direction of Clyde Simon, is well paced and the concepts nicely developed.  Use of era an correct typewriter, long handled telephones and clothing help enhance convergence continuum’s first musical endeavor.

The cast is generally convincing.  Both are better actors then singers, but that weakness is tempered by the fact that Dolginoff’s music is mostly talk-sing based, not requiring great singing voices, though, at times, both fell into the trap of following the rhyme pattern rather than the meaning pattern.

Zac Hudak as Richard Loeb, with evil glinting in his maniacal eyes, generally displayed the cocky attitude of a person who knows how to manipulate the love-starved Leopold.

Mike Majer mirrors the desperation for attention, the need for affection, and the nerdy bird-watching fascination of the easily manipulated Leopold.

Though Anthony Ruggiero’s piano accompaniment was well played, without additional instruments, the musical sound was somewhat hollow.

Con-cons 50 seat theatre, with its runway stage, brings the action up close and personal, enhancing the chilling effects of the action.

Capsule Judgement:  The Leopold-Loeb story has retained its fascination, even after all these years.  Though THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD & LOEB STORY has a somewhat flawed script and musical score, convergence continuum’s production is very  well worth seeing.  It should grasp and hold the attention of the audience. 


runs through June 8 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.