A killer couple takes stage in Moline dark musical

Relationships can be murder. That was certainly true for the homosexual couple Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

The brilliant, arrogant, cold and calculating teenagers – who committed the so-called “crime of the century” nearly 100 years ago in Chicago – are the subjects of the new Black Box Theatre show in downtown Moline, “Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story” with a book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff.

“Thrill Me” at Black Box Theatre stars Adam Cerny (top) and Danel Williams, opening Friday, Feb. 9.
“Thrill Me” at Black Box Theatre stars Adam Cerny (top) and Danel Williams, opening Friday, Feb. 9.

New for the theatre this year is a three-week run of each production. The 2003 musical opens Friday, Feb. 9, stars Adam Cerny (reprising his role as Loeb from 2016) and Daniel Williams as Leopold, with musical direction by Ron May and direction and design by BBT co-founder and artistic director Lora Adams.

The 90-minute, two-actor show is based on the true story of Leopold and Loeb, dubbed “thrill killers” by the newspapers of the time, who (at 18 and 19 then) kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago on May 21, 1924.

The musical was first billed:

“Sexy Richard Loeb, one of the most charismatic criminals ever, used his charm to control and entice his childhood friend, Nathan Leopold, into becoming his accomplice. In return for his help, there was only one thing Nathan wanted — Richard. But when their ‘perfect crime’ goes wrong and their lofty aspirations come crashing to the ground, all they really have left is each other, and Richard is forced to confront a shocking revelation that could rock the very core of his being.”

They, particularly Loeb, had become enamored of the writings of Nietzsche and his concept of “supermen,” once writing: “A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

“I first heard about the case from my mother. She had been the manicurist to one of their brothers,” said Lora Adams, who first staged “Thrill Me” for just one weekend in 2016 at The Speakeasy, Rock Island. Her mom did the nails for a brother of Leopold, at his home and he always was very well-dressed.

Lora Adams won a Mid-America Emmy award on Sept. 30, 2023.
Lora Adams won a Mid-America Emmy award on Sept. 30, 2023.

“He was old at that time and my mom certainly didn’t ask about the murder, but that’s who he was,” Adams recalled this week. “I remember she said how beautifully the people who took care of him made him look. That’s the first time I ever heard of Leopold and Loeb.”

The difference between the new production of “Thrill Me” and 2016 is they had done a lot of research the first time, and they only did one weekend of performances at The Speakeasy, 1818 3rd Ave., Rock Island, with Cerny and Thomas Alan Taylor as Leopold.

“As far as sets go, and costuming goes, pretty much the same,” Adams said of the Black Box (1623 5th Ave., Moline). “It’s a show I’ve always wanted to do. When I did it the first time, it was to finish my degree at Western.”

She had to do a learning portfolio to finish her bachelor’s at WIU in Moline, which incorporated the research, budget, costuming and set design for “Thrill Me.”

Adam Cerny (left) and Tom Taylor in the Speakeasy version of “Thrill Me” in 2016.
Adam Cerny (left) and Tom Taylor in the Speakeasy version of “Thrill Me” in 2016.

“We had very small audiences, frankly,” Adams said of the 2016 version. “I am really happy to bring it to The Black Box because it is an intimate musical that fits perfectly into the intimacy of the theatre itself.”

“We’ve been talking about it for years, ” she said, noting they had scheduled it for the 60-seat Black Box in early 2020 (before COVID shutdowns), but could not find another male actor opposite Cerny (mainly because of the kiss required). “I horn-swaggled Daniel.”

“It can’t be done with a hug, let’s put it that way, so I had to scrap it,” Adams said.

Williams is in his fourth show at BBT, after “Spelling Bee,” “Company,” and “All Is Calm.”

“It’s been great. When they did the show the first time, I was one of the people in the audience,” he said. “These are real people who did really horrible things.”

Exploring a dark, twisted relationship

A review of August 2023 production at floridatheateronstage.com called “Thrill Me” a “taut, tense, and haunting musical,” making it difficult to care about the killers Leopold (1904-1971) and Loeb (1905-1936).

Nathan Leopold (top) and Richard Loeb in 1924, after confessing to the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago.
Nathan Leopold (top) and Richard Loeb in 1924, after confessing to the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago.

“Nevertheless, Dolginoff’s musical is riveting. That is mainly due to the show’s mood-enhancing music, fast pace, intense passion, and our desire to see Leopold and Loeb receive justice,” the review said, noting Loeb convinced Leopold that the two were above society and embodied German philosopher Frederick Wilhelm Nietzsche’s idea of “Superman.”

Therefore, according to Loeb’s thinking, he and Leopold were brilliant to the point that they should be able to commit a heinous crime without authorities catching them. In the musical, the pair start out small by starting fires and burglarizing places. But, before long, Loeb convinces Leopold that they should murder a child because it’s a major enough crime to fit their superiority and brilliance.

“Burglary and setting fires are too trivial for supermen like us,” Loeb says. “We are above society. Murder is the only crime worthy of our talents, Nathan. Don’t you want to do something important with your life?”

“Thrill Me” author Stephen Dolgnioff (left) as Leopold in a 2005 production.
“Thrill Me” author Stephen Dolgnioff (left) as Leopold in a 2005 production.

A review at Musicals101.com said: “With its two-character format and intimate physical production, Thrill Me looks and feels like a chamber opera, but the music is very much in a contemporary musical theatre idiom. It is damned hard to make such material sing, but Stephen Dolginoff succeeds brilliantly. His sparing use of humor in this piece is unusually effective, as is his refusal to stoop to titillation or true crime story clichés.”

The New York Times wrote, “The story is familiar, the script and lyrics are not especially innovative, but somehow… Dolginoff’s pocket musical about the Leopold and Loeb murder case lands like a well-placed punch, arresting and a bit breathtaking…. Credit [the] lean approach to the storytelling…. Others have told the tale in plays and films, but there is something brazenly satisfying about Mr. Dolginoff’s rendition…. [It]’s a reminder that evil often looks and sounds beautiful.”

Adam Cerny (left) and Daniel Williams as the murderous pair, at Black Box, 1623 5th Ave., Moline.
Adam Cerny (left) and Daniel Williams as the murderous pair, at Black Box, 1623 5th Ave., Moline.

“It’s really about the dynamic between these two men — what made them be drawn to each other?” BBT director Adams said Tuesday. “Each of them has their own way of manipulating the other. So, you may think one is more dominant, but you might be wrong.”

“I do think the story is about these two people, very specific men,” she said. Defense attorney Clarence Darrow never referred to them as men, but as boys (18 and 19 at the time of the crime), Adams said. “He did not want the jury or the judge looking at them as older, therefore easier to hang, but boys.”

They were referred to as deviant in the play, and “they folded like a tent really fast,” she said of their confessions.

They had everything they could possibly want growing up – wealthy and smart, Leopold entered the University of Chicago at age 15, and Loeb graduated University of Michigan at 17, and met Leopold at U of C.

“The thing I personally find interesting, when you think about the young geniuses running around now, 12, 13, and they’re in college, how do they even relate to the people around them?” Adams asked. “It’s the same for these two. Richard was gregarious, but Nathan was always a fish out of water. You put him in a college situation…”

Williams as Leopold and Cerny as Loeb rehearsing for “Thrill Me.”
Williams as Leopold and Cerny as Loeb rehearsing for “Thrill Me.”

Leopold was planning to study law at Harvard. Loeb (who was more dominant) committed the actual murder.

Williams said they thought they’d never got caught. Loeb was obsessed with crime and murder novels, Cerny said.

“The crime they thought was perfect, but the way they carried it out was anything but,” Williams said. Loeb originally wanted to kill his brother, Cerny said, adding they ended up picking Richard’s second cousin, who lived across the street from them.

Leopold and Loeb settled on kidnapping and murdering the 14-year-old as their perfect crime. They spent seven months planning everything, from the method of abduction to disposal of the body. To obfuscate the actual nature of their crime and motive, they decided to make a ransom demand, and devised an intricate plan for collecting it involving a long series of complex instructions to be communicated, one set at a time, by phone.

“You look at photos of them during the trial, and they were loving it,” Williams said.

Cerny said the show is more interesting since it focuses on the relationship. “How did these two get to this place? How in the world did they get to where they ended up?” he asked.

Adams said the men simply got a high from committing crimes — at first little things like petty theft.

Cerny said they weren’t similar in personality, but just drawn to each other.

When they went to prison, they started a library and taught other inmates, Adams said.

“It’s not they’re going to make up for having taken this child’s life, but they had this ability to really make a difference,” she said of doing good. “They made this really crappy decision together.”

Leopold volunteered to help fight malaria, Cerny said.

A scene from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film “Rope,” based on Leopold and Loeb (credit: IMDB.com).
A scene from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film “Rope,” based on Leopold and Loeb (credit: IMDB.com).

The films “Rope” (1948) and “Compulsion” (1959) were based on the Leopold and Loeb case.

Loeb’s father Albert (who he also despised) died of a second heart attack on Oct. 28, 1924, less than two months after his son Richard was sentenced to life plus 99 years. On Jan. 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked by fellow inmate James Day with a straight razor in a shower room (stabbed 50 times); he died soon after at 30, in the prison hospital.

After 33 years in prison and numerous unsuccessful petitions, Leopold was released on parole on March 13, 1958. He died of a diabetes-related heart attack on Aug. 29, 1971, at age 66.

“Thrill Me” explores their relationship more from an emotional angle, than psychological, Adams said. “They ultimately, you can tell they are 18 and 19 years old.”

“I’m a high school teacher and I work with seniors, so I’m technically working with kids around the same age,” said Williams, who teaches at Sherrard (his alma mater).

‘Humanizing without justifying’

“I have been so excited about doing this again, since we last did it,” Cerny said. “I love everything about this. We’ve had time to dive into their relationship even more. There’s so much — the power plays between the two of them are so fascinating to watch.”

“There’s a certain shock value to their relationship,” Adams said. “Anyone who’s had the dynamic in a relationship that these two had, they’re gonna see it right away. Well, that is toxic.”

There’s a line in the show, Nathan says, “I was smart, but he was clever,” she said. “There are street smarts and book-learning smarts and I don’t know that Nathan was a street smart kind of guy. In the end I think Richard imagined himself as that. And they were cocky — all this privilege they have, and in the end, their heads are shaved and they’re put in a prison uniform and they’re just like every other” prisoner, she said.

“I think it does a good job of humanizing without ever justifying,” Williams said.

As actors, the guys enjoy playing dark, dramatic roles. “I’ve always done comedic roles,” Williams said. “This is fun.”

Adams said the formal clothes help make the man, putting on the smooth criminal parts.

“It’s a dark chamber musical, full stop,” she said. “There are other dark musicals. It’s not like someplace you’ve never been.”

“Stephen’s been nothing but supportive of us, which has been rather lovely,” Adams said of the writer Dolginoff. She’s really looking forward to seeing his new book, “Thrill Maker.”

“Thrill Me” author Stephen Dolginoff
“Thrill Me” author Stephen Dolginoff

“It’s a very dark story, but it’s told in a very entertaining way,” Adams said. “People who come and don’t know anything about these two people, they’re gonna walk away knowing the story. There’s no ambiguity.”

Dolginoff said Wednesday by email: “Thrill Me” has proved very popular in Asia, including performances in Seoul, Busan (South Korea), Tokyo, Osaka (Japan) Shanghai (China), to name just a few. “I think it is because they enjoy watching the intense story of the two men,” he said.

“This play, chamber musical, is produced all over the world and a lot of them in Asia,” Adams said.  “I have no idea why, but they are mad for this play. There’s one theater. it’s in their season every single year.”

“I started writing it 30 years ago. I thought it was a fascinating story,” Dolginoff said, noting his goal was not to glamorize or justify the murder in any way.

“There is absolutely nothing glamorous about murder,” he said. “Thinking back 30 years ago, as mentioned in my book, I was looking to tell the story of a relationship.”

He’s written a new memoir, “Thrill Maker,” which chronicles the entire 30-year history of “Thrill Me” (so far). It was soft-launched on Amazon recently, and officially launches worldwide on Tuesday, Feb. 6. There is an extensive list in the back of the book of every production of the show, including Black Box.

It was honored with both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for Best Musical, and has had over 200 productions — spanning 25 countries and 17 languages.

Expanding to three weekends

Cerny is so glad they’re doing three weekends of shows, since so few people saw “Thrill Me” in 2016.

Adams is extending runs to three weekends to give more people a chance to see them, and the fact that it costs more to put on a show than to add performances of the same show.

“From a purely fiscal point of view, it makes more sense to do that,” Adams said. “It’s more to build a new set, find costumes, props, all that,” she said. “Financially, it makes more sense to run it longer.”

The third weekend will always be Thursday, Friday and Saturday. BBT audiences usually appreciate the mission of Adams, to present shows no other theater in the area is doing. “This whole season is a bit of premieres of all kinds,” she said.

Williams also has a small part in the upcoming BBT spring musical, “Jane Eyre,” which Adams is also directing and rehearsing currently.

The eighth BBT season includes the U.S. premiere of “The Truth,” which Adams saw in London and has tried for years to do it here, finally winning the rights. Alex Richardson will be directing “2:22 A Ghost Story.” Adams will perform a one-woman show about her late mother, “Alzheimer’s 101,” the Black Box will partner with Opera Quad Cities (including performance from her brother Larry), and end the year with another “All Is Calm,” which was done in December 2022.

“Thrill Me” runs from Feb. 9 to 24, with all performances 7:30 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the BBT website HERE.

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