Archive for January 19th, 2022

Review – “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story” – Jermyn Street Theater

January 19, 2022

Coming out of Christmas time and before the schmaltz of Valentine’s day, it seems like there is a lull perfect for a bit of horror. And Jermyn Street is ready for that space with its production of Thrill Me, a 2005 off-Broadway musical based on the true story of 1920s “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. While a movie or a novel might focus the horrifying death at the core of this tale, the musical is, instead, focused on the relationship between these two men, and how two mostly ordinary, priveleged young men decided that the thrill they needed in their lives was to kill an adolescent boy.

Jermyn Street Theatre

Is this a story best served by music? Well, yes, really, it is, because explaining how an emotional journey takes place is a perfect job for song. Leopold’s obsession (and devotion) to Loeb, the pressure for each to provide what the other one wants, even the bizarre attraction of arson … a movie could never take us to that place of jubilation, attraction, physical chemistry, and basically all the forces that combined to make these two men think that sex, property destruction, and cold blooded murder were what you needed to make life good. You’re unlikely to agree with them, but you can feel the pressure of these intense emotions combining to make them take the path they did – and see how a few other notable psychopaths might have felt that same tug.

The songs wouldn’t really make it fly, though, if it weren’t for the intense physicality brought to the roles by Bart Lambert (Leopold) and Jack Reitman (Loeb). Loeb’s obsession with Nietzche, his belief that he was a “superman” that could never be caught by the dull plebs that surrounded him, and the genuine fire and “push me/pull you” relationship with Leopold were believable and toxic. I couldn’t help but think of modern incel culture, in which deluded young men think the women who reject them are in fact the defective ones and deserving of death, rather than realizing that they are actively being avoided because of their toxicity.

However, after living in the emotional cooker of Covid for nearly two years, I found that Lambert actually seemed to be taking the twitchiness of his character a bit too far for such an intimate venue as the Jermyn. The 1920s scenes (contrasting to the ones he does in the 50s with the parole board, as a much older and more mature character) seeemed almost like a silent movie, with his hands held like claws and his face screwed up as if in agony. And, as an aside, this play should NOT be seen as a true crime show; while it might make sense to have one character be more sympathetic, reading through the various information I could find made me think author Stephen Dolginoff in fact chose the wrong man to be portrayed as a villain. That said, you have to make your source material work in the medium in which it is going to be presented, and the many details that were changed up between reality and the show certainly served to make it a tighter evening.

Thankfully, though, director Matthew Parker handled the actual murderin a way that a queasy nellie like myself was able to ride through without damage – there was no body, no blood, no actual violence, and no horrible recounting of every little detail of what happened. I know that’s how some people like their thrillers, but I frankly could not have coped. Still, if you want a bracing, adrenaline-raising night out, Thrill Me is a most unusual musical and decidedly a welcome note of counter-programming in a West End that seems afraid to offer anything that isn’t escapist or nauseatingly cute.

(This review is for press night, which took place on January 18th, 2022. It continues through February 5th.)

Post script: here is a picture of Bobby Franks, because I think it’s important to remember him.