‘Thrill Me’ at Luna Stage is a twisted tale of love and murder

Dean Linnard, left, and Joe Bigelow in "Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story," which is at Luna Stage in West Orange through Dec. 20.

CHRISTOPHER DRUKKER

Dean Linnard, left, and Joe Bigelow co-star in “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story,” which is at Luna Stage in West Orange through Dec. 20.

“Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story” is a love story. It’s also a creepy tale of murder. As Cheryl Katz, artistic director of Luna Stage in West Orange, writes in the program for the play, which Luna Stage is presenting through Dec. 20, “we offer you a little respite from the relentless optimism of the (holiday) season.”

Nathan Leopold, who is played by Joe Bigelow in the two-character musical, and Richard Loeb, who is played by Dean Linnard, were real people, convicted of what some called “The Crime of the Century” in 1924. As the play title implies, they committed murder just for the thrill of it, and because they were so smart they thought they could get away with it.

“Cops are dumber than dirt,” Loeb tells Leopold at one point in the play. Yeah, right.

Katz directed the production, which has a purposely dreary, noir-ish look. It opens at Leopold’s 1958 parole hearing, then flashes back to the action of 1924. The audience watches from rows of seats at both sides of the stage, as if witnessing a trial. The music is supplied by a lone pianist.

Stephen Dolginoff, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, says “every detail is at least inspired by actual events and facts,” though obviously a lot that happens in the play is more what he imagines might have happened than what we can definitively say happened.

Loeb, in this play, is a brilliant sociopath, convinced that he is a Nietzschean superman, not beholden to ordinary human laws. And Leopold is desperately in love with him … so in love that he will to do anything — and I do mean anything — that he asks.

They start with petty crime — arson, theft — before upping the ante. “Murder is the only crime worthy of our talents,” Loeb tells Leopold.

Linnard does a good job at conveying Loeb’s craziness with a weird stare. Bigelow effectively makes Leopold seem like just a normal guy, at first, before letting us see how deranged he, too, is.

Yes, this is a musical, but don’t be misled by that. There are no big production numbers, no amusing little ditties (though some black humor does creep in, from time to time). There’s nothing cute about it.

The musical format does seem appropriate, somehow: A solo number is a time-honored way for a character in a musical to let the audience know what’s on his mind, after all, and a duet is a natural way for two characters to spar, verbally, or come to a deeper understanding of each other.

“Thrill Me” is more absorbing than many more traditional musicals. There’s something oddly refreshing — almost thrilling, one might say — about the way it looks, so unflinchingly, at how low two human beings can descend.

For information, visit lunastage.org.

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