by David C. Jones
You walk down an unfamiliar alley and enter through a slightly ajar door at the back of a building. Inside is a warehouse with a large wooden staircase that goes up one wall. A series of mismatched seats are in three groups surrounding the playing area. The lights dim and a pianist at upright piano starts to pound out a grand overture in eerie minor keys. A single hanging light turns on and a handsome young actor steps into it.
Thrill Me is a twisted little love story about two lovers who plotted and murdered a young boy. Weary of petty B & E and arson, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb committed what was dubbed in its time, the crime of the century. Defended by the great lawyer Clarence Darrow they did not hang for their heinous "thrill kill" but instead were sentenced to "Life plus 99 years".
This makes the song very creepy because we can see why the child would get in the car that will lead to his death.
The Canadian premiere of Stephen Dolginoff’s musical is at first glance distasteful material for a musical but the genre has supported killers of Presidents (Sondheim’s Assassins), killer barbers (Sondheim again, Sweeny Todd), killer plants (Menken & Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors) - so precedent has been set.
The cast of two is pretty much on stage for the entire 80 (intermission-less) minutes. Both men are immensely talented singers and appealing stage presences.
As the more passive and needy Nathan, Braedon Cox leans a little too hard into victim mode – as Nathan was seduced into participating in the crimes, he is so reticent that it robs later moments like “How could you do this to me?” from having any real shock of realization. Leopold was getting a thrill from all this too even if it was just to be with Loeb. That said, he is fantastically numb yet determined in his parole hearing scenes (the musical is told in flashbacks) and blends fantastic harmonies with Michael Gill.
Mr. Gill as the brilliant sociopath is sexy swagger and charm, with the vicious gleam in his eye of a cruel killer. He thankfully resists playing the "crazy" like in the song “Roadster” where he tempts the unseen victim "Bobby" to come for a ride - he is all warm smiles and playfulness. This makes the song very creepy because we can see why the child would get in the car that will lead to his death.
The whole sequence leading up to the ‘crime of the century’ is very effectively staged and performed. It’s hypnotic with real intensity and danger and even though you know they will succeed in the killing it is still captivating. Ryan Mooney and his assistant director Mika Laukainen create a nice simple staging (Mr. Mooney is also currently starring in Lend Me A Tenor). Alison Dalton’s music direction contributes to the effectiveness.
We could stand to see more of the witty bright young men before and after the crime. The killers were gay and University educated and considered themselves ‘supermen’ with Loeb being a devotee of Nietzsche. They had a sense of bitchy humour - of being ‘bright young things’ - all supported in the script with lines like “You finally topped me”. Said with a bravado sense of irony the lightness would illuminate the dark themes. It would also support some truly clunky lyrics like “don’t forget what you signed on the paper, when you finished committing a caper” or the “If we killed my brother John, he would never touch my things again.” Said with straightforward earnestness it makes them awkwardly laughable.
Also why not have Mr. Cox play older in the parole hearing scenes – when he is a caged prisoner who has lost everything and is more free and boyish in the flashbacks when the world was his oyster? It would add a sense of theatricality and it would not make the line “I have been in prison 34 years” so jarring.
The overall evening, however, is effective, the venue is a fun adventure, the story is sadistically bent yet romantic and the actors bring a lot of passion to their performances and sing wonderfully. How often have you attended a chamber musical in an alley?