True-crime fans will enjoy Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story coming to the Wharton Center for Performing Arts in East Lansing.

Featured photo courtesy of Wharton Center

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb were bright yet troubled young Jewish men from prominent Chicago families. On a spring afternoon in 1924, they lured 14-year-old Bobby Franks into their rented car and beat him to death with a chisel.

The seemingly motiveless crime captured headlines around the world, as did the trial, where renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow defended the alleged killers. Both men, who came to be known as the “thrill killers,” were convicted and sentenced to life in prison as a result of Darrow’s passionate arguments against the death penalty.

While this gruesome tale may seem an unlikely subject for a musical, it’s the basis of playwright and composer Stephen Dolginoff’s Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, playing at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts in East Lansing Feb. 12-16.

The show is directed by Bert Goldstein, director of the Wharton Center Institute for Arts & Creativity at Michigan State University. He saw the musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 and knew it would be an excellent fit for the Wharton Center’s Illuminate series, which offers audiences a fringe theater experience through smaller productions based on edgy and thought-provoking material.

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Actors Mark Ryan Anderson and Wayne Shuker star in Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story. Courtesy of Wharton Center

“Our goal is to create discussion and tackle subjects that may not always be comfortable,” Goldstein said. “This story of two privileged young men with their entire lives mapped out for them and how they ‘blew it’ because of their toxic relationship still intrigues people. And Dolginoff did a great job capturing the psychology of their relationship.”

First produced in New York in 2003, the two-actor show has been performed throughout the world and translated into 12 languages. It has received several award nominations, including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical and Best Musical Score.

Starring New York-based actors Mark Ryan Anderson and Wayne Shuker, the story is told in a series of flashbacks beginning at Leopold’s 1958 parole hearing. According to Goldstein, the production has a film noir feel, capturing the mood of an early Alfred Hitchcock movie. The design of the entire play is in “black and white,” including the sets, furniture, costumes and lighting. The only splotch of color is Loeb’s blood-red tie.

“That’s one of the things that makes it really interesting for me,” said Goldstein, who has been a theater professional for 40 years, working as an actor, director, producer and arts educator.

A piano player, seated on the stage, provides the musical accompaniment. In the opening number, “Why,” Leopold tells his parole officer how he came to throw his life away despite his many advantages.

“The music is intriguing; it’s fraught with tension, at times beautiful and haunting and mysterious,” Goldstein said.

Thrill Me is performed in the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre, which seats 585 people. For this production, the stage will be converted to an arena style, with audience members seated on three sides. A limited number of on-stage seats are available for those who want a more intimate viewing experience.

“The intimacy is part of the thrill, to be close to the actors,” Goldstein said. “If you’re going on this thrill ride, being close will enhance the ride.”

While the subject matter is grim, Goldstein says there is some “gallows humor” to lighten things up. The end of the musical features an ironically humorous twist, which Goldstein would not reveal.

“It’s a great show for fans of true crime or people who want to see a non-traditional musical,” he said.

The crime has been the subject of numerous articles, books and films, including Hitchcock’s Rope and Meyer Levin’s book Compulsion, which was also adapted into a film. Goldstein added an interesting piece of lore, explaining that the murder did not provoke the expected anti-Semitic response because Bobby Franks was Jewish.

“There was not a rise in anti-Semitism as there would have been if two Jews had killed a Christian,” he said.

Thrill Me is playing from Wed., Feb. 12 through Sun., Feb. 16 at the Pasant Theatre in the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, 750 E. Shaw LN, East Lansing. Ticket prices begin at $35, with group and student discounts available. The show is recommended for audiences 15 and older. An After Chat with the actors will take place immediately following the Feb. 12 performance. An Insight Preview will be held on Feb. 13 at 6:45 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit www.whartoncenter.com or call (517) 432-2000 or 1-800-WHARTON.

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